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‘Green’ Only Goes So Far When Consumers Weigh Product Choices

More and more customers are interested in buying ethical products, including those made with sustainable and eco-friendly materials and produced under good working conditions. But unfortunately, a new German study reveals that customers unconsciously use a single ethical aspect as an excuse for a less moral behavior regarding other aspects of the same product.

“Persons shopping consciously in one respect often consider this a blank check to ignore other values,” said Dr. Nora Szech, professor of political economy at the Institute of Economics (ECON) of Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany.

“A little good appears to be good enough. An example to illustrate this is the consumer who shops at the organic food supermarket and then drives home in his or her SUV. This probably happens entirely without a bad conscience.”

Szech conducted the study with her doctoral researcher Jannis Engel. They emphasize the impact of these “indulgence effects” and their significance to economy and politics in the journal PLOS ONE.

Szech carried out a 3-stage experiment with 200 participants: In the first stage, a computer randomly determines whether the participants have to decide between towels made of conventional cotton and towels made of pure organic cotton.

In the second stage, the participants are asked to make their choice with respect to production: No money is paid when they decide in favor of products made under certified, ethical work conditions. They are granted a monetary reward, by contrast, when work conditions of tailors are conventional.

“The participants could choose among various amounts of money and had to decide whether they preferred money and a conventionally produced towel or whether they receive no additional money, but a towel produced in compliance with minimum ethical standards for tailors,” Szech said.

The results reveal that participants are far less inclined to refuse money for safe work conditions, if their towel is made of pure organic cotton.

“We found that test persons deciding in favor of pure organic cotton towels were far less willing to pay for safe work standards,” Szech said.

“Their decision in favor of the better material was used as a ‘moral license’ to no longer consider a second ethical aspect. A single, minor improvement of the product is sufficient to develop a high moral self-conception and to consider oneself an ethically acting person.”

In the third stage of her experiment, Szech found that participants still used their decision in favor of pure organic cotton even 30 minutes later as an excuse for their less-ethical actions. Participants were given the opportunity to donate part of their participation premium to refugees from a local refugee camp.

“We found that test persons with a towel made of pure organic cotton donated less often than persons preferring a towel made of conventional cotton,” Szech said. “The ethically better material, hence, was used to justify smaller donations to people in need.”

According to Szech, the results may trigger social and political discussion. As consumers unconsciously react to indulgence effects, companies might use the impacts of moral self-licensing to provide customers with excuses and to influence the purchasing decision.

This might also help mask ethical misconduct. “Politics and the society should know these mechanisms in order to respond accordingly,” Szech said.

Source:  Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT)

‘Green’ Only Goes So Far When Consumers Weigh Product Choices

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). ‘Green’ Only Goes So Far When Consumers Weigh Product Choices. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 22 Feb 2020 (Originally: 22 Feb 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 22 Feb 2020
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