Eco-friendly is conservative turn-off research suggests

The political controversy around climate change is so divisive, conservatives are statistically less likely to buy light bulbs marked environmentally friendly compared to functionally-identical but differently branded alternatives, surprise new research suggests. Described as showing "the negative consequences of environmental messaging" according to lead study author Dena Gromet of the University of Pennsylvania, the research indicates a "good for the environment" sticker might not be the marketing gold some companies and retailers believe it to be.

The study, published this week, looked at stated buying intentions when a group of shoppers with mixed political views were presented with a range of bulbs. All chose the eco-friendly compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs when each of the options were priced the same, but when the eco-friendly bulbs carried a premium – just as is usually the case, compared to traditional incandescent bulbs – and a label billing them good for the environment, those who described their political beliefs as conservative were less likely to choose them compared to their more liberal counterparts.

"You can lose significant portions of people who would otherwise be interested in these products when you use that environmental labeling" Gromet told National Geographic. "So it indicates that different messages can reach different groups."

The results are interesting, because all of the 210 participants in the study were previously given information on how a greater upfront price of CFL bulbs could still be offset by lower running costs and a longer lifespan compared to incandescent. That suggests cost was not the primary deciding factor for the conservatives turned off by eco-labels.

"When we asked afterward, those consumers identified the CFL bulbs as providing greater monetary savings over time. But they would forgo that option when that product was made to represent a value that was not something they wanted to be identified with" Dena Gromet, University of Pennsylvania

Nonetheless, there are also indications that a green message isn't especially effective on those with liberal views either. Comparing those who stated an intention to buy more expensive CFL versus more expensive CFL with eco-labels, the numbers weren't much different, Gromet pointed out.

One possibility is that the "green" message on products is generally mistrusted, either resulting in an active dislike – such as observed in conservative shoppers – or the promotion being ignored altogether. Future research will look at whether different emphasis on advantages of energy-efficient products, such as reduced ongoing bills, causes the same political divide.