Environmentalists just can’t seem to win these days. First there was Climategate, then there was the complete fail that was Copenhagen, and finally the melting Himalayan glaciers mistake—all of which contributed to the findings of a Gallup poll released last week that 48 percent of Americans think that the threat of global warming is overblown.
Now comes the devastating finding that “green products do not necessarily make for better people”—at least according to Do Green Products Make Us Better People, a new study by University of Toronto professors Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong, released in the latest edition of Psychological Science and published on-line last week.
Mazar and Zhong based their study on the assumption that our purchases are more and more reflective of our social and moral values, which is why products carrying organic, local, fair-trade, carbon-neutral, and similar labels appeal to conscious consumers, even when they come with a higher price tag. The authors found that we often attribute “higher social and moral values” to those who buy green, too. But how does buying green products actually affect our behaviour, if at all?
Citing research that people given photos of upscale restaurants subsequently practice better manners while eating or the finding that just being exposed to the Apple logo can increase creativity, the researchers confirmed that “mere exposure to green products” is enough to influence how people act and results in people acting more altruistically.
However, after buying green products, people are less altruistic, more asocial, and show an increased willingness to lie, cheat, and steal.
So what does this mean for people living in Vancouver, where our reputation as a green city—with assists from the new LEED-certified Olympic Village and Mayor Gregor Robertson, a former farmer and cofounder of organic juice company Happy Planet—became the focus of not a few international publications during the Olympics?
Should you be wary of all nature-loving hippies (if you’re not already)? Are you likely to be mugged outside Whole Foods or on your way home from the farmers market?
Probably not. Green shoppers are not inherently immoral; rather, the authors believe that the bad behaviour backlash to buying green is caused by a holier-than-thou type of effect. Anyone benefitting from a boost to their moral self-esteem after doing a good deed—like buying ecofriendly laundry detergent or recycled toilet paper, for example—is less likely to scrutinize their own behaviour and consequently more likely to act like an asshole.