Initiatives designed to make companies seem more ‘green’ could backfire if people think corporations profit from them, according to a paper published online this week in Nature Climate Change. The study suggests that companies risk drawing a negative reaction from consumers by promoting themselves as good environmental citizens.
Many companies are seeking to implement business practices that are both environmentally friendly and have the potential to make money - so-called ‘win-win strategies’ - such as encouraging the reuse of hotel towels, constructing energy efficient buildings, or sponsoring environmentally friendly organizations.
George Newman and Tamar Markov recruited English-speaking adults in the United States to participate in four online social experiments to test public reactions to such activities. They found that the initiatives that presented environmental benefits alongside financial gains for the company were rated less favourably by participants than initiatives that only presented a profit motive. The initiatives were particularly unpopular when participants were encouraged to focus on community responsibility prior to being exposed to the promotions. In fact, consumers were most likely to accept the strategies if they were primed to be in a market-oriented frame of mind, by, for example, being asked to write about a time in which they participated in an efficient market.
The authors suggest that companies should therefore focus on communicating the financial benefits, not the environmental gains, of their sustainability initiatives if they want to avoid a negative backlash from consumers.