The Sony MDZRX110 headphones are nothing special. They’re your typical, bulky, black, plastic headphones. They retail for $15 on Amazon. But when nearly 200 people listened to the same clips of music on these headphones, scientists discovered something interesting: Half the people liked the music just fine, and half the people liked it more than fine—or even a lot.
Why did the music sound better to some people? Because they were told that their headphones were made from recycled plastic. That blatant lie literally changed the way people perceived music.
As it turns out, when people think a product is green, they’re not just more likely to buy it; they actually enjoy the experience of that product more than they would if the product were not green.
These findings—dubbed the “greenconsumption effect”—come out of a new paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research, from the John Molson School of Business in Concordia. “The overall thing we wanted to see [was] if using green or sustainable products would change the experiences [people had],” explains Onur Bodur, the professor of marketing who coauthored the paper. “From that perspective, the whole paper is a bit different than others . . . we’re looking at consumption with a green product, not of a green product.” In other words, researchers weren’t just asking subjects “how do you like the headphones?” They were asking subjects “how do you like the music?” (Though as it turns out, people like the headphones and the music more when the product is green!)
It wasn’t just one pair of headphones that sounded better when they were labeled as green, though. Bodur’s team replicated the greenconsumption effect with other products. Subjects reported enjoying writing a personal essay more when it was with a green pen, and they weren’t as annoyed with washing dishes when the detergent was environmentally friendly.
The conclusion was simple: If a product was green, people liked the sensation of using that product more than if it wasn’t. The effect was significant and repeated across several different trials.
So why do people enjoy green products so much? Bodur believes it’s because humans are social creatures who are inherently responsive to social values. “At some level, [people] think that there’s a social value attached to making such sacrifices, or decisions—such as using green products—even if they didn’t buy them or choose them,” says Bodur. As a result of that sacrifice, we believe we’ll be more accepted by our peers.
Bodur actually tested this hypothesis as part of the study. During the pen testing trial, Bodur’s team had subjects fill out a questionnaire that measured their own social exclusion—or how removed they felt from other people and society at large. Those who felt more excluded from society reported a measurably higher boost from using the green pen compared with those who felt more included.
“If you feel particularly socially excluded—that the social value you have has dropped [to the] bottom—the use of green products could have a bigger impact,” says Bodur.
As a result, Bodur suggests that businesses promote green products—to an extent. He warns, and has demonstrated, that consumers who perceive greenwashing, or that a product advertises meaningless green attributes, don’t have the same positive feelings toward the experience as those who believe a product is actually environmentally friendly.
But does the truth really matter all that much? Might Bodur’s research only fuel the fires of greenwashing, prompting businesses to make more baseless claims about the environmental impact of their products just to win over consumers? “I hope that greenwashing is not the outcome marketers walk away from this with,” Bodur says. “If greenwashing becomes so prominent in society, I think the social value attached to [it] may change; it may at some point dissolve.”