Does Green Labeling Influence One’s Willingness to Buy – Survey Says . . .

By Brent Fewell

Apparently so, if you’re a political moderate or conservative.  A new study from the National Academy of Sciences confirms that moderates and conservatives are less inclined to purchase energy-efficient products, when the product is linked to climate change.  light bulb(The study can be purchased here in its entirety)   Just goes to show how polarizing the topic of climate change has become.  According to the authors Dena Gromet and Howard Kunreuther (from U. Penn’s Wharton School) and Richard Larrick (from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business),

This research investigated whether relying on environmental concern to promote energy-efficient technology may, in fact, present an additional roadblock to increasing demand by deterring otherwise interested consumers from purchasing these products because of the message’s (unwanted) value connotations.

The study defined “value” as a product’s psychological valuation or perceived worth as opposed to purely economic valuation.   The article continues:

Political ideology provides a shared belief and value system through which people view and react to the world around them.  In the United States, ideology is likely to be a major determinant of the value that people place on protecting the environment.  Environmental concerns are part of a politically liberal ideology in the United States and have been correspondingly devalued by political conservatives.  These different ideological positions are marked by diverging beliefs about the state of the world and the role of government in addressing societal issues.  Although protecting the environment is likely to be a priority for political liberals (a category that typically corresponds to the Democratic Party in the United States), political conservatives (a category that typically corresponds to the Republican Party in the United States) may find that this issue conflicts with the ideology to which they subscribe. Therefore, appeals regarding energy efficiency that label these choices as reflecting concern for the environment might repel a substantial segment of the US population that does not identify as politically liberal.

The study, which involved only 657 participants, polled individuals on their political leanings and provided a choice of purchasing either an incandescent or energy-saving compact flourescent light (CFL) based on three motivating values, CO2 emission reduction, energy independence, and cost savings.

Interestingly, the study did not find that energy-efficiency itself was a politically polarizing topic.  In fact, the majority of participants, regardless of ideology, selected the more expensive energy-efficient light bulb when it did not contain a “green” label linking the purchase to climate change.  Participants appeared willing to purchase a more expensive energy-efficient light due to the transideological support for energy independence and saving money due to reduced energy costs – i.e., motivated by patriotism and money.  In contrast, when a green label was affixed to the light bulb, even when the price for the more expensive CLG was discounted to remove price as a factor, political moderates and conservatives were less inclined to purchase the product.  The authors of the study conclude:

These results also speak to the role of financial incentives as a way of increasing demand for energy-efficient options.  When the CFL bulb was discounted to match the price of the incandescent bulb, psychological value-based concerns did not influence choice. All participants except one picked the discounted CFL bulb, suggesting that when energy-efficient options do not require larger upfront costs than standard options, psychological valuations are less likely to dissuade people from choosing energy efficiency.

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[T]here may be sources of political common ground with regard to the environment itself, because framing environmental protection in terms of psychological values that appeal to those on the political right (such as purity or patriotism) increases concern for the environment among political conservatives. Future research should identify whether tapping these less polarizing concerns, morals, and values can bridge the ideological gap in the willingness to pay for energy-efficient options. Our findings demonstrate the influence of framing and contextual effects on people’s selection of energy-efficient options and the importance of individual-level, behavioral factors in adopting energy-efficient measures.  These results also speak to the importance of recognizing that people’s choices can be based on noneconomic sources of value.

Values, credibility, and incentives matter.  So a word to the wise and those entrepreneurs and capitalists who wish to cash-in on the ever-growing energy-efficiency space.  Because the vast majority of Americans – a/k/a consumers – consider themselves politically moderate or conservative, be careful in how you label and promote your product.

[Update:  Thought it worth linking to Tim McDonnell’s post “Why do conservatives like to waste energy?” over at Grist.  Tim goes into greater detail on the NAS study, but also points to EPA’s successful Energy Star program stating that it “puts greenhouse gas Energy Starsavings front and center in its packaging, and proudly boasts that products with the label help Americans “protect our climate.” I don’t know what label Tim is looking at, but none of the Energy Star labels in my household use that language.  What is prominent on the label imagesCARGN3QQis the estimated yearly cost savings to the consumer.  Smart economics speak to even the most ardent political.  Sure, if you can save money and help the environment, that’s a good thing.  However, it’s the economic incentives and household savings that have made the Energy Star brand so popular not the proud boasting of protecting the environment.   Consumers also have a choice of purchasing other non-Energy Star products if they wish.  I think also contributing to the results of this NAS study is the lingering bad taste left in the mouths of those who recall efforts to force consumers to purchase CFLs and phase-out incandescent bulbs.  The public doesn’t much care for government compulsion and being told what to do at the expense of reduced consumer choice, particularly when the case for a new law hasn’t been successfully made.  This is an easy one for me.  If some consumers want to waste energy, they should pay for it, as they do in higher monthly energy bills.  Heck, those who drive Humvees pay through the nose at the pump, relative to Prius drivers.  However, rather than thwart consumer choice and regulate a product, such as a light bulb, that itself is not the object causing environmental harm, the government should focus on addressing the underlying environmental externalities, i.e., carbon emissions, through policies that provide price signals for consumers to properly respond.]