Does eco-friendly translate to inferior?

Sep 10, 2014

According to new study from researchers at Yale University, consumers are less likely to purchase a product if they think helping the environment was the intended purpose of a product improvement. Essentially, consumers perceive that brands skimp on quality to get greener.

Wrote authors George E. Newman, Margarita Gorlin, and Ravi Dhar (all of Yale University) in a statement, "If a company intentionally made a product better for the environment, consumers believe the product’s quality must have suffered because the company diverted resources away from product quality."

In a series of studies, subjects learned about a company that manufactures household cleaning products and were told that the company either intended to make the product better for the environment or that the environmental gain was the result of another improvement.

Even when the company’s intentions were not disclosed, consumers thought the products suffered from a quality control problem, suggesting that consumers automatically perceive green products as being lower quality even when a company does not specify its intentions.

"Companies improving a basic product feature (making something more environmentally friendly or better tasting) should either position the improvement as unintended or emphasize that the primary goal is improving the quality of the product," wrote the authors.

The study found a similar effect with other perceived tradeoffs, such as healthfulness and taste. In one experiment, ice cream that was intended to be healthier was perceived as less tasty than the ice cream that was healthier as an unintended side effect.

The study did find that when the spelled-out social benefit was separate from the product (e.g., advertising fair trade or sustainable production practices or their donations to charity), consumers evaluate the product more favorably when the enhancement was intended (vs. unintended.) The authors wrote in the report, that "the key moderator of compensatory inferences versus halo effects appears to be whether the social benefit is seen as something that is part of the product or not."

Are messages at retail around green and healthy-for-you often counterproductive to sales? What lessons does the study offer around promoting green and healthy-for-you products?

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10 Comments on "Does eco-friendly translate to inferior?"

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Dr. Stephen Needel

We need more information about the study: Were the prices the same in all conditions? If so, one would think that making it green at the same price reduced quality. Shoppers are expecting to pay more for green products and if those expectations are violated, you should expect less interest. So no, messages are not counter-productive unless there’s a mismatch with other expectations (pricing, packaging).

Ken Lonyai

The survey doesn’t surprise me. I would like to know the make-up of the participants because I believe the perceptions might be somewhat different with Millennials.

Mainstream consumers really don’t stray from their existing habits and IMHO will subconsciously look for excuses to stay within their comfort zones and habits. A greener product than the category leaders, with it’s different composition and possibly appearance, is the perfect foil for that mentality.

The takeaway is to know your target market. People are slow to change their lifestyle, so marketing green and healthy aggressively to those that aren’t ready is a non-starter.

Ian Percy

It’s a wonder that researchers (from Yale or not) aren’t driving us all to schizophrenia! One study says we do things because of “that” and a week later another study says we do things because of “this.” I’d like to declare a national week free of any research reports! Researchers learned a long time ago that a contrarian position will get a lot more press than a supportive one. There’s a little too much conniving in academia.

Of course if a product doesn’t do what it promises, it doesn’t matter if its green or not. The goal is to be able to say, “We’ve found a way to make this product perform significantly better and in the process we also made it environmentally friendly,” or vice versa.

Ralph Jacobson

I have seen another study that shows that if the product is a well-made product, sustainability aspects can help sell the product further, however sustainability in itself is not a key driver. So, I’d agree with most of the findings of this study, except that if the product is viewed as a good product (like, “Tesla makes a good car, and oh, by the way, it’s also electric”), being green is usually a plus.

Bottom line, being green is not yet the primary purchase driver many had hoped it would become.

Joan Treistman

I agree that the results are not surprising.

Please take the categories into account. Cleaning products for “green” and food for “healthy.” There are many cases that demonstrate consumers are wary of “healthy” foods that are typically indulgent. If I’m going to eat ice cream I want to enjoy it and therefore I will pass on healthy-for-you claims. Look at the ups and downs of SnackWells. Check out their new packaging, which reflects a more mainstream product than when they introduced the “healthy alternative” originally.

As for cleaning products, there are many brands that have introduced green benefits successfully. They have promoted a product characteristic that can make consumers feel good about what they are buying, without confusing the overall make up of the product.

Now imagine if the food product was promoted as green and the household cleaners as healthy for you. That might be an attractive option for shoppers. It just so happens SnackWells’ packaging is green.

Roger Saunders

A retailer or CPG firm would best be supported by reviewing the entire questionnaire on this study before moving forward. With 100 respondents in each phase of this study—intended, unintended, and control—the margin of error is +/- 10 percent. Did the authors write a survey to prove their hypothesis, thus introducing an excess amount of interview bias?

Additionally, if you were going to test a food product in particular, wouldn’t you accompany it with a tasting panel?

Yale is fortunate to have a large endowment. Not convinced that it is going to grow as a result of this study.

David Lubert
David Lubert
3 years 1 month ago

As a shopper, I do not perceive messages around green or healthy to be counterproductive. In fact, my perspective on that product is that I would strongly consider it!

Naomi K. Shapiro
Naomi K. Shapiro
3 years 1 month ago

We’re all over the map on this one. Maybe it’s the “study.” Or maybe it’s us? I was thinking (and these are just thoughts, i.e. not based on research), in terms of industrial products—if they’re green, they may be less effective, i.e. diluted. About food, it seems if there’s trouble gone to, to make the food more healthy or green, I expect it to be better quality.

In total, I believe we expect to pay more for these products because of the extra effort to make them green. But I never thought of it in terms of equating green with lower quality. The question is the message being counterproductive to sales? Maybe.

Craig Sundstrom

Interesting, certainly (it’s not everyday on RW we’re confronted with phrases such as “orthogonal to performance”!); and to me—if not the others here—both surprising and a little disappointing. Unfortunately, the few minutes we’re afforded before commenting isn’t enough time to study the study—so to speak—in depth, so the only thought I can offer is that this (over) simplifies consumer behavior; i.e., even if consumers overall reject such a message, there is a significant sub-group who will respond positively to it…Walmart vs. Whole Foods, if you will.

Kai Clarke

Yes. Just because a product is eco-friendly or green does not mean that it is offers the same performance or value as the standard product it is competing against. Consumers recognize this and have long ago decided that all things are not equal when a product is green…their purchasing decisions simply bear this out. Manufacturers need to listen to these consumers when bringing these products to market.


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