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Do Green Products Make Us Better People?


Consumer choices not only reflect price and quality preferences but also social and moral values as witnessed in the remarkable growth of the global market for organic and environmentally friendly products. Building on recent research on behavioral priming and moral regulation, we find that mere exposure to green products and the purchase of them lead to markedly different behavioral consequences. In line with the halo associated with green consumerism, people act more altruistically after mere exposure to green than conventional products. However, people act less altruistically and are more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing green products as opposed to conventional products. Together, the studies show that consumption is more tightly connected to our social and ethical behaviors in directions and domains other than previously thought.

Do Green Products Make Us Better People?

In the past few decades consumers have become increasingly attentive to social and ethical considerations such as energy consumption, animal husbandry, and fair trading (Chen, 2001; Crane, 2001; Torjusen, Lieblein, Wandel, & Francis, 2001). This increased concern and feeling of responsibility for society has led to remarkable growth in the global market for environment-friendly products (Hunt & Dorfman, 2009). At the heart of this trend, which is often referred to as ethical consumerism or green consumption (Anderson & Cunningham, 1972; Kinnear, Taylor, & Ahmed, 1974), lies the assumption that purchasing choices not only express price and quality preferences (Monroe, 1976) but also norms, values, and beliefs (Caruana, 2007; Irwin & Baron, 2001). This assumption has motivated a stream of research focusing on identifying the “green consumer” by socio-demographic variables, personality measures, or values that are directly related to environmental consciousness (e.g., Schlegelmilch, Bohlen, & Diamantopoulos, 1996; Shrum, McCarty, & Lowrey, 1995).

What has not been sufficiently understood is how green consumption fits into our global sense of social responsibility and morality and affects behaviors outside of the consumption domain. Based on recent theories in behavioral priming and moral regulation, we argue that mere exposure to green products versus purchasing them will have markedly different effects on subsequent behaviors. While mere exposure can activate concepts related to social responsibility and ethical conduct and induce corresponding behaviors, purchasing green products may produce the counterintuitive effect of licensing asocial and unethical behaviors by establishing moral credentials. Thus, green products do not necessarily make us better people.