Scroll through Instagram, and you’ll notice many brands touting their eco-friendly credentials. There’s an image of Allbirds, which uses sustainable wool to make high-tops, and Adidas, which is using plastic pulled out of the ocean to make running shoes. Blueland sells refillable cleaning spray bottles and tablets of soap that you dissolve in water, to cut down on waste. Grove makes toilet paper out of sustainable bamboo.
Some research suggests that consumers care a lot about how eco-friendly a brand is. A study by the Boston Consulting Group last year found that 75% of consumers surveyed viewed sustainability as extremely or very important. And this might explain why brands are racing to develop innovative eco-friendly alternatives to the status quo. There’s only one problem: Scholars have found that consumers think green products are less effective than their traditional, more polluting counterparts.
Bryan Ursey, a professor at the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Business School, recently published a study in the Journal of Advertising. He found that when a brand highlights the sustainable attributes of a product, consumers think that the implicit message is that the product will perform worse than its less sustainable counterpart. He did this by conducting a study in which he recruited 253 American consumers to assess two ads for laundry detergent, one that had a label that said that it was sustainable and 100% eco-friendly and the other that did not. Both detergents were “made using ingredients to ensure a great cleaning experience,” according to the ads.
The results were clear. Consumers largely saw sustainability as a sign that the product was less effective. “Consumers seem to have rigid categories in their mind when it comes to products,” Ursey tells me. “When it comes to high-performing cars, for instance, they’ll lump together a Lamborghini, a Ferrari, and a Porsche. But if you said that one of these cars was now eco-friendly, the consumer would assume it was not as fast as its counterparts.”
Ursey says that this is bad news for the state of the planet because if consumers aren’t actually buying sustainable products—no matter how much they say they care about the environment—brands have no incentive to keep making green goods. “It takes a lot of money to develop eco-friendly products,” says Ursey. “If consumers think these products are not as good, and therefore don’t buy them, they won’t see it as a good investment.”
Consumers’ sentiment toward green products is grounded in some truth. Until recently, most mainstream brands and consumers weren’t particularly interested in sustainability, so it was smaller, niche brands that created green products. Since they had fewer resources than bigger brands, they could not invest as much in product innovation or in improving the performance of their products. So in many cases, consumers were right for thinking that the mainstream brands created goods that were more effective.
That has changed in recent years, as big brands and well-funded startups have made sustainability part of their mission. On top of that, these brands often test their products against their non-green competitors, to make sure they stack up when it comes to performance.
So would it make sense for brands to effectively hide their eco-friendly credentials, since they may make consumers think worse of the products? Ursey says it depends. In categories where consumers are not used to eco-friendly alternatives—like, say, hand sanitizer—it might be better for a brand to lead with other characteristics, like how effective and high-performing the product is. Once consumers see how well it works, the eco-friendly part could be a nice bonus, not a mark against it. On the other hand, if you’re making products in a category where consumers have already seen how well eco-friendly alternatives work—perhaps shoes, for instance, since brands like Allbirds and Rothy’s have proven shoes can be comfortable and green—then it makes sense to talk about sustainability. “The goal is for us to get to a place where consumers believe that sustainability and performance are not at odds,” says Ursey. “That will incentivize everybody—brands and consumers—to switch to these better products.”