Altruism is dead, environmentally speaking

A new study suggests that societal acceptance is the engine driving the green movement.

Maureen Landsverk

We give a variety of reasons for practicing what used to be considered environmental philanthropy: genuine concern for the environment, a desire to protect our health or maintain the planet for future generations, etc. These reasons are certainly in the realm of possibility, but as it turns out, they arenâÄôt quite honest. A recent study by assistant professor Vladas Griskevicius of the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management proposes that status and public reputation are the primary motivators behind the exuberant leap onto the green bandwagon. The drive toward social acceptance is so great, many are willing to take a hit âÄî in their checkbooks and product quality âÄî to attain the prestige that eco-friendly products provide. Because most green products are more expensive and less effective than their traditional counterparts, going the environmentally friendly route is, depending on oneâÄôs viewpoint, either idiotic or authentically selfless: âÄúAltruism signals oneâÄôs willingness and ability to incur costs for othersâÄô benefit,âÄù states Griskevicius. One of the most obvious ways to signal oneâÄôs environmental concern is to buy a hybrid car, such as a Toyota Prius. Lower gas emissions, better mileage and steeper price all amount to the quintessential green buy âÄî a noticeably eco-friendly purchase with a bigger price tag. Nevertheless, should a Prius driver be given the benefit of the doubt? That is, could they in fact have been prompted to spend thousands more by sheer concern for the planet? A recent New York Times report put that optimistic theory to rest, finding the No. 1 reason Prius owners chose their vehicle to be that it âÄúmakes a statement about [the owner].âÄù Interestingly, Toyota recalled eight models in February, including the Prius, citing brake problems. The company had been aware of the glitch for 12 months. The defect is unsurprising and in keeping with green production theory, it illustrates a sacrifice of quality and performance for the consumerâÄôs appearance as environment-savvy. In reality, a true save-the-planet statement would be the purchase of a bike or a good pair of walking shoes âÄî Gaiam offers a durable, vegan certified pair for $20,000 cheaper than ToyotaâÄôs latest mode of transportation. Of course, every trend starts with a celebrity. Another acclaimed hybrid, the Lexus LS600H, was gifted to Paul McCartney as a promotional reward. It was flown in from Japan, creating a carbon footprint about 100 times larger than the alternative boat delivery. When every storefront seems to boast bamboo rugs and biodegradable-soled shoes, itâÄôs difficult not to be swept into the craze. As âÄúgoing greenâÄù becomes a more and more mainstream concept, those who donâÄôt follow the tree-hugging phenomenon are increasingly visible. This raises a troubling question: What state would our world be in without the applied societal pressure to live eco-friendly? Applying the studyâÄôs conclusion to other situations warrants the assumption that we would indeed be worse off. Consider smoking, for example. The latest data available, collected in 2003, indicated lowered cancer deaths for the first time in the United States since 1930. This is due in part to a drop in the smoking rates of many developed countries, including the United States âÄî a trend that has been affected by societal pressure along with tax regulation. While peer pressure is generally seen as having negative consequences on those affected, it may have a constructive purpose after all. The tendency to follow othersâÄô moralistic examples in this case may be jarring to individualism, but it undoubtedly reaps ecological rewards. In another segment of GriskeviciusâÄô experiment, the team studied the effect of price comparison on consumersâÄô likelihood to opt green. In cases where publicity and status were not factors, the cheaper eco-friendly products were more popular than their conventional counterparts, as would be expected. Why buy a more expensive version of an item when the cheaper alternative is beneficial to the Earth? However, when social standing was thrown into the mix by creating a public atmosphere where subjects could be influenced by the presence of onlookers, consumers were actually more likely to purchase the ecological choice than they were in the first scenario âÄî even though the green products were more expensive than the normal merchandise. âÄúIf we understand why people are motivated [to do things], we can better figure out ways to motivate them towards a certain behavior,âÄù Griskevicius explains. He clarifies that changing peoplesâÄô beliefs is useless âÄî the classic âÄúyou donâÄôt care, but you should careâÄù argument does little to stimulate change. Instead, increased status is much more influential to the masses, and by harnessing it, âÄúyou can use it to do something good.âÄù Both aspects of the study prove just how far we are willing to go to demonstrate our concern for the environment, sham that it may be. How much are we really willing to sacrifice for a reputation as an esteemed philanthropist? Consumers are putting their lives on the line âÄî and in the hands of the imperfect Prius âÄî just to project an alleged concern for the environment. With societal approval worth more than our own safety, we must ask ourselves how dangerous the trend of valuing othersâÄô perception of us above all else has grown, and how we will rise above it. Maureen Landsverk welcomes comments at [email protected]