Why do people buy eco-friendly products?

Buying sustainable products for the sake of the environment, unfortunately, is not most consumer’s primary reason. However, behavioural science brings hope to sustainable entrepreneurs. 

The expected answer to the question ‘why do people buy eco-friendly products?’ should be ‘to avoid harming the environmental’—full stop. However, unsurprisingly, this is not the case. Fortunately, by applying behavioural sciences insights [1], both entrepreneurs and marketers can develop more effective brand strategies.

The Prius case.

The Toyota Prius is a compact sedan vehicle, with cloth seats, weak engine, overall standard quality, meaning it is not very exciting. However, the Prius became one of the most successful cars in US history. Why? One could argue that the Prius is a hybrid gas-electric vehicle, which cost less to fuel. Therefore drivers feel encouraged to buy as they would save money. But saving money on fuel could not be the case, as the Toyota Prius is more expensive than similar cars. Another possibility concerns sustainable consumers arguing that lower carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

However, The New York Times reported the top reasons that Toyota Prius owners decided to buy their cars and the results were not as one would expect [2]. Interestingly, environmental conservation was the last reason on the list, whereas it ‘makes a statement about me’ was the number one reason. More importantly, drivers believe that owing to a Prius ‘shows the world that its owner cares’ about the environment. These results suggest that the competition for status may be the underlying reason to buy a Prius, instead of environmental conservation [1]. Therefore, tapping into status motivation may change green consumer behaviour from luxury to standard quality eco-friendly cars. Ultimately, this shift signals an altruistic behaviour [3].

Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid

Altruistic competition

There is evidence to suggest that people are sensitive to social cooperation [4]. For instance, people are more likely to donate money to environmental causes when they are in public because in doing so influences their reputation [5]. So, appearing altruistic seems more important than giving away money and saving the environment.

Furthermore, by showing an altruistic and prosocial reputation can be a useful strategy to stand out among other people. Research shows that altruistic individuals are seen as more desired as friends and romantic partners [6, 7, 8]. There is also evidence to suggest that individuals who show the willingness to self-sacrifice for a group are more likely to be chosen as leaders [9]. Therefore, prosociality, like green consumer behaviour, is an indirect way to gain status.

Marketers and entrepreneurs should be aware that, the link between eco-friendly brand and status alone is not as powerful as it can be. The critical aspect of nudging consumer behaviour revolves around prosocial and altruistic acts displayed in public.

Cross-cultural differences

Interestingly, consumers perceive eco-friendly products differently across the world [10]. For instance, consumers in the United States view ethically superior products (e.g. biodegradable and fair trade) as less effective than those that are not [11]. Conversely, Northern Europeans display a more positive view of eco-friendly products than the Americans do. For example, Swedish consumers have positive attitudes towards organically produced products [12]. The contrast between the two countries indicates that altruistic and prosocial behaviour as strategies to gain social status is not replicated cross-culturally. Therefore, marketers and entrepreneurs should be even more careful with global brand campaigns associated with status and environmentally friendly products. It is advised to study local consumer behaviour beforehand and perhaps develop distinct campaigns.


Why do people buy eco-friendly products? There is evidence to suggest that people purchasing eco-friendly goods gain social status, as a demonstration of altruistic behaviour. In turn, eco-friendly consumers become more socially attractive. Moreover, professionals developing marketing strategies that link sustainable products and status should consider insights from psychological research (e.g. sustainable behaviour is encouraged when other people are present). However, cross-cultural studies reveal that consumers from different countries have a distinct perception of sustainable products, which requires multiple market strategies. Nevertheless, the connection between altruism, sustainability and status is a useful marketing strategy to encourage green consumer behaviour.


[1] Griskevicius, V., Tybur, J. M., & Van den Bergh, B. (2010). Going green to be seen status, reputation, and conspicuous conservation. Journal of personality and social psychology, 98(3), 392.

[2] The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/04/business/04hybrid.html

[3] Miller, G. F. (2000). The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature. NY: NY.

[4] Bateson, M., Nettle, D., & Roberts, G. (2006). Cues of being watched enhance cooperation in a real-world setting. Biology letters, 2(3), 412-414.

[5] Milinski, M., Semmann, D., & Krambeck, H. (2002). Donors to charity gain in both indirect reciprocity and political reputation. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences, 269(1494), 881-883.

[6] Cottrell, C. A., Neuberg, S. L., & Li, N. P. (2007). What do people desire in others? A sociofunctional perspective on the importance of different valued characteristics. Journal of personality and social psychology, 92(2), 208.

[7] Griskevicius, V., Tybur, J. M., Sundie, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., Miller, G. F., & Kenrick, D. T. (2007). Blatant benevolence and conspicuous consumption: When romantic motives elicit strategic costly signals. Journal of personality and social psychology, 93(1), 85.

[8] Stiff, C., & Van Vugt, M. (2008). The power of reputations: The role of third-party information in the admission of new group members. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 12(2), 155.

[9] Gurven, M., Allen-Arave, W., Hill, K., & Hurtado, M. (2000). “It’s a wonderful life”: signaling generosity among the Ache of Paraguay. Evolution and Human Behavior, 21(4), 263-282.

[10] Jansson-Boyd, C. V. (2010). Consumer psychology. Open University Press/McGraw-Hill.

[11] Luchs, M., Walker Naylor, R., Irwin, J.R., & Raghunathan, R. (2008). Do consumers expect less from ethically superior products? Presentation made at the Society for Consumer Psychology conference, New Orleans, February.

[12] Magnusson, M. K, Arvola, A., Hursti, U. K. K., Åberg, L., & Sjödén, P. O. (2001). Attitudes towards organic foods among Swedish consumers. British food journal.

Photo by Raivis Razgals on Unsplash (Toyota Prius – Banner)

You May Also Like