We might all like to think that our green purchases reflect a genuine concern for the environment, but psychological studies have found this rarely to be true.
When Jessica Nolan at the University of Arkansas and her colleagues asked Californians why they tried to conserve energy, at the top of the list of answers was environmental protection and the benefit to society. Least influential of all, the householders claimed, was the fact that other people were doing it.
However, when researchers looked at the data they found it was what people thought their neighbours were doing that actually had the strongest relationship with actual efforts to conserve energy.
As Dr Cordelia Fine, author of A Mind of Its Own: How your brain distorts and deceives, says although people may flatter themselves into thinking their decision to buy green stems from their strong sense of social responsibility, they are simply unconsciously trying to do what they perceive everyone else to be doing.
But are non-environmental motives necessarily a bad thing? After all, if they end up producing the desired effect, does it matter how we got there?
WWF change strategist Dr Tom Crompton argues that our motives do matter. He says appealing to materialistic values like saving money might work with switching to low-energy lightbulbs but not with the long-term behavioural changes needed to create a sustainable society.
'If we're hoping that specific behavioural changes will spill over into other areas and engender a greater sense of environmental concern then the evidence is that an appeal to extrinsic values aren't helpful.
'Lasting and ambitious change will only be achieved through engagement with values and life goals. This is because, as research demonstrates, values and life goals organise the more specific attitudes and behaviours that make up people's day-to-day lives,' says Crompton.
This is a point that Clive Hamilton makes in his new book, Requiem for a Species. He says green consumerism has failed to make significant inroads into the unsustainable nature of consumption and production and is 'unlikely ever to do so'.
'By shifting responsibility onto individuals and reinforcing the sacrosanct nature of consumer lifestyles, green consumerism threatens to entrench the very attitudes and behaviours that have given us global warming,' he says.
Any green is good green
However, not everyone is so pessimistic about green consumption.
Solitaire Townsend, managing director of Futerra Sustainability Communications, says we should 'embrace' green consumerism whatever the motives, even if they are selfish ones.
'Men don't drive Porsches to get from A to B, but rather for the documented testosterone rush of being seen driving one. Like most high carbon consumption behaviour the object isn't to consume, but to achieve status, hedonic identity or to press another of our built-in buttons.
'You can't substitute a nature walk for a Porsche, not because of our values but because of our programming.'
Solitare says environmentalists should stop trying to turn off people's 'rampant desires'. The real job, she says, is to find suitable 'status-imbued' substitutes with lower impacts.
There is already research that has proven the potential for social status to force people into pro-environmental behaviour.
A study by academics in the US and The Netherlands, 'Going green to be seen: status, reputation and conspicuous conservation' looked at why sales of the Toyota Pruis, a hybrid car, increased as the price went up. Economics, of course, suggests the opposite should happen.
It turned out that environmental conservation was low on the list of reasons given by the Prius owners for buying the car. Instead what researchers found was that it enabled the owners to show, in a highly visible way, that they had made a self-sacrifice.
'While green products may often offer less luxury, convenience and performance than conventional goods, they offer an important status-enhancing reputational benefit. Such goods enable people to appear pro-social rather than pro-self,' concludes the study.
Study co-author Dr Bram Van den Bergh from the Rotterdam School of Management, says knowing that a desire for status can spur self-sacrifice presents a 'powerful tool' for motivating pro-social and pro-environmental action.
He says it is pointless to pretend that we can convince people to buy green products by playing on intrinsic or deeply held beliefs.
'Look at support for the Green Party across Europe. Not enough people really care,' says Van den Bergh. He advocates, like Townsend, playing on people's desire for status and, in effect, 'nudging them in the right direction'.
'Playing on extrinsic values like money is not enough. Once the financial incentive is gone people will return to their old behaviour very quickly. Social motives like status, on the other hand, can last long-term because social environments will always be there,' says Van den Bergh.
While social pressures may help increase green consumerism, there is also an important argument against 'over-moralising' green acts.
A recent study, 'Do Green Products Make Us Better People?', by psychologists from the University of Toronto, found that people who bought a green product were more likely to use this apparent self-sacrifice as a licence to be more selfish.
Co-author Dr Nina Mazar says their findings support the theory that people keep internal tabs on what they doing: 'If you do something good you can then transgress and vice versa.'
She says if green consumerism became less of a moral issue and more neutral then it could negate this kind of moral self regulation.
Townsend agrees and says environmentalists need to get to grips with the reality of human psychological needs.
'The key is to make people feel good about buying green and making a sacrifice, whether that is by not flying, eating meat or having a big, shiny, fast car.'
Are people fundamentally selfish and self-motivated?
In this email debate, leading environmentalists Solitaire Townsend and Tom Crompton thrash out that thorniest of questions: do people really care about more than themselves?
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