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Penn State Smeal research reveals that careful marketing can impact consumer eco-product purchasing habits

April 26, 2017

Putting eco-products like low-energy LED light bulbs or biodegradable paper towels in the hands of consumers represents a double-edged sword according to a forthcoming paper from the Penn State Smeal College of Business—encouraging environmentally responsible behavior in some while actually decreasing environmentally responsible behavior in others. 

Research conducted by Lisa E. Bolton, professor of marketing and Frank and Mary Jean Smeal Research Fellow at Smeal, and Smeal Ph.D. alumnus Aaron M. Garvey, assistant professor of marketing at the Gatton College of Business and Economics at the University of Kentucky, suggests that companies need to consider this interplay among green purchases when using strategic marketing to encourage environmental responsibility. 

Consumers who embrace green living typically have established eco-friendly purchasing habits. The research from Bolton and Garvey confirms that those individuals typically follow one eco-product purchase with another and then another. For these consumers, green purchases are reinforced over time. 

However, for consumers who are less environmentally conscious, purchase of an eco-product can undermine subsequent eco-product purchases. The initial purchase easily meets these consumers’ green goals: they feel they’ve done their good deed and tend not to choose eco-products in their next purchase. For these consumers, one green purchase boomerangs on the next. 

Marketing efforts can affect whether reinforcement or a boomerang effect occurs on consumers’ future green behavior. 

The researchers presented two groups of test subjects a shopping scenario that described their purchase of either an eco-product or control product. The participants were then told they would continue “shopping” for household essentials and were presented with choice pairs of products that varied in environmental responsibility and asked how likely they would be to purchase either. 

“Marketing materials for one company’s eco-printing products tell consumers ‘Congratulations! Your purchase has … contributed to reducing the burden on the environment,’” Bolton said. 

“For consumers who are less environmentally conscious, that message implies consumers have done their part or met their goal. If so, their next purchase probably won’t be environmentally responsible.” 

Bolton said that more effective marketing messaging would emphasize that protecting the environment requires a series of environmentally responsible choices. 

“Consider the claim that ‘For more than 25 years, we’ve been making a difference together.’ This message emphasizes consistency in environmental responsibility,’” she said, “not just on the part of the firm but the consumer as well.” 

Messaging about consistency could occur in various ways. “While in-store displays and other point-of-sale interventions are one possible approach to communicating such messaging, product packaging may be a more effective medium for reminding consumers of the need to be consistent in their environmental behavior,” Bolton said. 

Bolton and Garvey’s research, titled “Eco-Product Choice Cuts Both Ways: How Pro-Environmental Licensing versus Reinforcement is Contingent upon Environmental Consciousness” will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing. 

Bolton is one of dozens of Smeal faculty who are conducting sustainability related research. Sustainability is a strategic priority for Smeal.

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