Choosing green = choosing lower quality?
Reputational gain of introducing green products and services may be strong, but why are consumers reluctant to choose green over non-green alternatives?
In an endeavor to build a reputation as an environmentally friendly and sustainable brand, H&M recently launched its seventh “Conscious Exclusive” collection. The H&M brand is primarily positioned as an affordable brand, but as a response to “green” consumer trends (www.forbes.com) and previous corporate scandals related to production processes (www.theguardian.com) and marketing communication (www.washingtonpost.com), the company is working hard to position the brand as both affordable and sustainable.
Although the reputational gain of introducing green products and services may be strong, a pressing question for companies is how to close the gap between consumers’ favorable attitudes and good intentions on one side, and their actual buying behavior on the other. Research shows that consumers may be reluctant to choose green over non-green alternatives due to at least three key reasons: Consumers perceive green products and services as (a) more expensive, (b) of lower quality, and c) feminine.
However, is sustainability always associated with lower functional performance? In the case of H&M, the sustainable attributes of the “Conscious Exclusive” collection may very well be perceived as a quality indicator. We have tested the relationship between green attributes and perceptions of functional performance in a series of experiments in collaboration with Orkla. Specifically, we have tested whether green attributes lead to higher or lower quality perceptions for two product categories: body lotion and drain opener. Results show that green (vs. non-green) attributes generated higher quality perceptions for the body lotion, while green attributes in a drain opener generated lower quality perceptions. Our results suggests that the relationship between sustainability and perceived quality depends on whether the product category is gentle (e.g. body lotion) or strong (e.g. drain opener).
Another factor that explains the intention-behavior gap in green consumer behavior is perceptions of higher prices for sustainable offerings. Our research confirms that consumers expect to pay a premium price for sustainability, and that the premium price and the lower expected quality explain higher preference for the regular drain opener rather than the green alternative. Given the tradeoffs that consumers make between sustainability and other values, we will design experiments where we test interventions that may reduce this sustainability liability.
The shift towards more sustainable business models must be founded on insight about consumers’ preferences and decision-making. Green innovations are not necessarily adopted by consumers, in spite of their positive attitudes and intentions. In CSI, we will continue to focus on how firms should develop sustainable business models that take consumer psychology into account. We know that new sustainable solutions may require considerable behavioral change among consumers, and we will need more information about the potential barriers for adopting new practices. In the collaboration with Orkla, we are exploring consumers’ attitudes towards new solutions for refilling old plastic containers. We know that these new solutions may influence the everyday life of consumers, and we need insight about a whole set of new behaviors – not just a single purchase decision.