Think - AT LONDON BUSINESS SCHOOL

The effortlessly green phenomenon with Dr Dafna Goor

Why customers prefer eco-friendly products in the morning and what that means for a more sustainable future

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Consumers today have more environmentally friendly options to choose from than ever. They also have access to a vast breadth of information on why these choices are so important. In fact, public awareness of environmental concerns and their possible remedies is at an all-time high. So why do some of us still choose standard products over greener alternatives?

Dafna Goor, Assistant Professor of Marketing at London Business School, has been exploring the psychology of consumer habits for years. Her ongoing research, Effortlessly Green: When and Why Effort Impacts Environmentally Friendly Consumption, examines the relationship between ‘feelings of deservingness’ and product choices across various contexts and areas of consumption. Working in collaboration with IDC’s Dr. Yonat Zwebner, Dr Goor and her research team found that expending effort heightens consumers’ sense of individual deservingness, which in turns lowers their preference for environmentally friendly products.

Dr Goor sat down with Think to talk about how she proved the ‘effortlessly green’ phenomenon and what it means for marketers.

“I’ve always been interested in the idea of psychological entitlement. It’s not an area that has been widely researched within a marketing context and yet it impacts consumer behaviour quite a bit.”

Finding inspiration in unusual places

By early 2020, Dr Goor was already involved in a pilot study investigating consumer’s motivations for choosing eco-friendly products. She’d been working with a household name organisation to look at when their customers were buying ‘green’ options. “We used machine learning to sort through millions of transactions a month and we found that customers were more likely to go for a greener option in the morning. This was the first indication that something interesting was happening.”

What did she suspect was driving this pattern? “I’ve always been interested in the idea of psychological entitlement. It’s not an area that has been widely researched within a marketing context and yet it impacts consumer behaviour quite a bit. I suspected that exerting effort made people feel generally more deserving and therefore less likely to make a pro-social or ‘greener’ choice.”

Inspiration for the next phase of her investigations didn’t strike in a lab or research centre, but at the gym. “I was leaving my gym in Israel one day in January and I noticed they were giving out plastic straws to customers who bought cold drinks. I was thinking ‘why don’t you have an eco-friendly option? Haven’t you seen the turtle video?’”

Dr Goor reached out to the owners and they agreed to participate in an experiment: users would be offered a choice of standard or environmentally friendly straws. “Although one straw was made of plastic and the other was made of cornstarch, they looked and felt the same”, she explains. The two boxes of straws were clearly labelled and positioned next to each other on the counter. A research assistant watched gym users come and go, documenting their choices.

The assistant spent a few hours a day observing purchases over a 16-day period, observing a total of 106 interactions. They found that, in general gym-goers chose the eco-friendly straw, but they were actually less likely to choose it after their workout. For Professor Goor, this was a turning point. “We knew then that it wasn’t just about how people feel in the morning verses the afternoon or evening, but something deeper.”

“When people’s mental resources are depleted, they become more focused on themselves. They don’t have the mental energy to think about larger concerns.”

Confirming her theory in the lab

Eight months later, Dr Goor took her theory to the lab. Participants were randomly assigned to tasks of varying difficulty. In one experiment, two groups were given an extract from a Shakespeare play. People in Group A were given a fairly straightforward task, such as finding the second word in the first line of the extract and underlining it. Group B were asked to find more words in longer, more complicated lines.

Afterwards, both groups were told that, as a gesture of appreciation for their participation in the study, they would be entered into a raffle. There were two prizes up for grabs: a standard reusable water bottle and another, eco-friendly bottle. Participants were asked to indicate their preference. Almost always, those who’d completed the harder task chose the standard water bottle, while those who’d been given the easier task went for the greener option.

“The results by now are pretty robust. The more effort someone expends, the less likely they are to choose the green option.”

It might be easy to take a gloomy view of what the results tell us about human nature, but Dr Goor doesn’t think we should be too quick to judge. “I don’t think what we’re seeing is malicious. Egocentric, yes. But not necessarily deliberate.” What does she think is driving their choices? “When people’s resources are depleted, they become more focused on themselves. They don’t have the mental energy to think about larger concerns.”

The Shakespeare experiment has now been replicated dozens of times, across two different labs. “The results by now are pretty robust. We’ve experimented with different products and stimuli and we see the same thing every time; the more effort someone expends, the less likely they are to choose the green option.” Participants have been asked to choose between everything from different types of pens and plates to a complementary journey on either an electric or standard train. Dr Goor explains, “It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s a souvenir or an experience that participants would be consuming, the results are the same every time.”

Dr Goor and her team have also experimented with different populations. “We’ve worked with Britons, Israelis and Americans and we’ve explored different groups within those populations. “Some of the people we’ve interviewed are students, but many of them were just people who sign up for random surveys. We’ve also been meeting real consumers in the gym or on e-commerce platforms.”

What does ‘effortlessly green’ mean for marketers?

How does Dr Goor marry her findings with our population’s urgent need to move towards a greener, more sustainable future? “Well, although what we’ve been looking is what drives people away from the greener option, we can use the results of our research to encourage the reverse.” Of course, the simplest approach is to target consumers during the times they are most likely to buy green – but she believes we can go further. “Getting green products in front of people earlier in the day is good, but we should be looking at designing experiences that encourage people to make greener choices in any situation. If we can create relaxing, stress-free shopping experiences or experiences that remind people of times they’ve felt that way, we could nudge them towards making better choices.”

“It’s not about forcing people to do things they don’t want to do, but about how we can harness people’s purchasing power for the greater good.”

For Dr Goor, the possibility of positively impacting consumer’s choices is not only deeply exciting but proves how worthwhile the study of marketing can be. “Every now and then one of my marketing students will ask me what the point of our work is. Aren’t we just getting people to buy more things they don’t need? I think results like ours show how marketing has the potential to help people make choices that are better for them and better for the planet. It’s not about forcing people to do things they don’t want to do, but about how we can harness people’s purchasing power for the greater good.”

What else is there to know?

Going forwards, Dr Goor wants to explore if the ‘effortlessly green’ phenomenon generalises across other pro-social acts. “We know people are less likely to choose a greener product after a long day, but would this also apply to helping a stranger or giving money to charity? I want to see how psychological entitlement plays out across other ethical issues.”

There’s also a number of interesting questions she’d like to explore within sustainability. “Another thing I’m interested in is looking at how people feel about greener options across different product categories. There’s been some research that suggests people have negative assumptions about the cleaning power of eco-friendly detergents. But the same people will rush out to buy ‘natural’ skincare products. Understanding the psychology of these decisions is going to be key to understanding what motivates someone to shop more sustainably.”

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