U. TEXAS-AUSTIN (US)—While 40 percent of consumers say they are willing to buy green products, only 4 percent actually do, according to a new study.

Published in the Journal of Marketing, the study finds that while most people like to give the impression that environmental friendliness is a factor in shopping decisions, many would rather choose effectiveness or durability—and as a rule green products don’t quite cut it.

“In one part of our study we looked at the actual usage and consumption of ‘green’ (versus ‘normal’) hand sanitizers during the swine flu craze,” says Raj Raghunathan, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Texas-Austin.

“We found that people were more prone to using the non-green version since they thought it would be stronger—but this tendency changed when the user felt that someone was observing their choice, in which case, they shifted to using the ‘green’ version.”

Consumers may believe green products are not as effective or strong, Raghunathan says, but feel they have to voice support for green products, so they say things like,  ‘I would definitely buy a green product if it were available.’

This support of green products seems motivated by a desire to appear to be a good citizen rather than actually wanting to buy such products, he says.

People expect tires made from recycled materials to be less durable than other tires and green detergent to clean less well. An energy efficient bulb may be expected to burn less brightly and gallon-for-gallon, ethanol-based-fuel may be expected to provide less energy.

Eco-friendly baby shampoo may be okay, but purchasing similarly green laundry detergent is not as attractive. Consumers worry that the green detergent won’t be strong enough to get the grass stains out of their children’s shorts.

To be successful, energy-efficient or so-called green products need to overcome the ‘sustainability penalty’ that consumers levy, which questions durability and strength.

“As we found in one of our studies, when a sustainable tire is explicitly presented as ‘guaranteed strong,’ people were as receptive to it as they were to a non-sustainable tire,” Julie Irwin, professor of marketing, says.

“We also found that consumers want to know that other consumers have chosen the product. Simply making clear that the product is a best seller can help alleviate fears about it.”

Raghunathan suggests that a third way to overcome the sustainability penalty is to hide the fact it is green. But that has the disadvantage of not attracting consumers who want to patronize products that are sustainable.

In any case, marketers looking to launch green products should be careful about consumer research. Asking consumers directly about their opinions of, and attitudes toward, sustainable products is likely to overinflate the potential demand.

“People are unwilling to openly admit they think sustainable products are not strong,” Raghunathan says.

Researchers from the College of William and Mary and Ohio State University contributed to the work.

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