By Camilla BARBAROSSA
In recent years, international environmental policy debates have increasingly identified household consumption in industrial countries as one of the main causes of environmental problems. In most countries, household consumption over the lifecycle of products accounts for more than 60% of all environmental impacts of consumption.

In this context, the role of purchasing eco-friendly products to reduce consumers’ environmental footprint has recently been addressed, especially for products that are purchased on a regular basis, such as eco-friendly tissue paper products, biodegradable detergents, and substitutes of over-packaged and plastic products.

Policy makers and non-governmental organizations have developed policies (e.g., EU’s Action Plan) and pro-environmental behavior campaigns (e.g., WWF’s ‘Don’t Flush Tiger Forests’) to promote the purchasing of eco-friendly alternatives in the market. However, the current market shares of eco-friendly products are still fairly low.

To enhance the effectiveness of policies and social marketing campaigns and to stimulate the diffusion of eco-friendly products in the market, the achievement of two specific goals is needed: first, to better understand the factors that stimulate and prevent consumers from purchasing eco-friendly goods; and, second, to assess whether these factors may vary across different consumer segments. This knowledge is essential to develop more effective policies and marketing strategies tailored for different population segments that vary according to specific characteristics (e.g., environmental commitment).

The study
A recent research that I have conducted with Patrick De Pelsmacker from University of Antwerp addresses these issues. First, we developed a model that determines what stimulates and prevents consumers from purchasing eco-friendly products while grocery shopping. Second, we compared this model between two different consumer segments: ‘green’ consumers (that is, consumers who already engage in pro-environmental behaviors – such as recycling, reducing household waste – for environmental reasons) versus ‘non-green’ consumers (that is, consumers who are honestly unengaged in pro-environmental behaviors).

The study involved 926 adult respondents responsible for grocery shopping in the household. Specifically, the sample was composed of 453 ‘green’ consumers and 473 ‘non-green’ consumers. All the respondents answered a questionnaire including a series of questions assessing the extent to which a number of factors may positively or negatively influence their decision of purchasing eco-friendly goods while grocery shopping. The respondents also answered questions about their intentions to buy eco-friendly products and their eco-friendly products actual purchase behavior.

Results and implications
The results of our survey revealed remarkable differences in the willingness to buy eco-friendly products between ‘green’ and ‘non-green’ consumers. As expected, ‘green’ consumers are more willing to purchase eco-friendly products than ‘non-green’ consumers. Additionally, our results indicated that the two consumer groups are influenced by different factors in purchasing eco-friendly alternatives. For example, ‘green’ consumers may be willing to purchase eco-friendly products because they want to project a desired, favorable impression of themselves on relevant others. This is not the case for ‘non-green’ consumers.
‘Green’ consumers seem to be concerned about the impact of their consumption choices on the natural environment. This environmental concern drives them to opt for eco-friendly alternatives. Conversely, ‘non-green’ consumer are less prone to take the footprint of their individual actions into account when grocery shopping.

Both ‘green’ and ‘non-green’ consumers think that consuming responsibly is still a time-consuming, economically disadvantageous and stressful activity. However, the negative perception of any personal inconvenience related with purchasing eco-friendly products plays a different role between the two consumer groups. On the one hand, it contributes to reinforce ‘non-green’ consumers’ unwillingness to try eco-friendly alternatives. On the other hand, it mainly occurs for ‘green’ consumers inside the point of sale (e.g., eco-friendly products are not always available or they come in a narrow range), thus explaining why these consumers often show an inconsistency between their stated (green) intentions and their actual (not always green) purchase behavior.

Marketers, policy makers, and organizations may use the results of our study to foster eco-friendly product consumption, by developing communication programs that are specifically tailored toward ‘green’ and ‘non-green’ consumers. For example, the concern for the environmental consequences of purchasing and consuming products is relevant only for ‘green’ consumers, whereas this argument should be ignored when addressing ‘non-green’ consumers. When addressing ‘green’ consumers, companies may develop co-branded partnerships with pro-environmental organizations (as Kimberly Clark and WWF did) to address active green members with tailored marketing campaigns. The content of this communication should focus on the amount of natural resources that consumers may save by purchasing eco-friendly alternatives. For instance, Small Steps has developed a ‘Tree Calculator’ Tool to calculate the specific number of trees and amount of CO2 and water an individual or a family may save by purchasing one or more packs of eco-friendly tissue paper products.

Furthermore, consumers’ perceptions of the personal inconvenience of purchasing eco-friendly products reduces both ‘green’ and ‘non-green’ consumers’ eco-friendly products purchase intention and behavior. Unless market failures are corrected, both ‘green’ and ‘non-green’ consumers will not be able to buy responsibly. Hence, one class of public policy initiatives should focus on ‘economic policies’, such as ‘getting the prices right’ or using tax instruments to adjust for environmental impacts and other externalities not reflected in market prices. Additionally, and more importantly, when addressing ‘non-green’ consumers, marketers should seek to increase ‘non-green’ consumers’ intention to buy eco-friendly products through reducing their perceptions of eco-friendly products as ineffective substitutes of conventional goods. Conversely, when addressing ‘green’ consumers, companies should enhance consumers’ perception of eco-friendly products accessibility and awareness inside the store. In this regard, smart phone technology (e.g., GoodGuide app) may provide ‘green’ consumers with real-time information about the presence of eco-friendly products inside the store while they are shopping.

In conclusion, the diffusion of eco-friendly products in the market strongly depends on consumers acceptance of these products. Different consumer segments may be motivated to opt for eco-friendly alternatives for different reasons. Our research aimed at developing knowledge about the differences in these motivations across two consumer segments: ‘green’ and ‘non-green’ consumers. This knowledge is essential to build tailored versus standardized communication strategies when addressing one specific consumer group or different groups simultaneously.

This article was originally published in the Journal of Business Ethics (2016).

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