Get the latest from TODAY

Sign up for our newsletter
By Martha C. White

No good deed goes unpunished, at least if that deed is a company making a product eco-friendly.

A forthcoming paper in the Journal of Consumer Research finds that if people think a company went out of its way to develop an environmentally conscious household product, they won’t buy it. Customers are only attracted to a product’s green bona fides if they believe its eco-friendly attributes came about as a by-product of some other goal.

A new research paper says we like green household products if we think the company wasn't aiming to make them that way.Image Source / Today

As consumers, we think — sometimes consciously and sometimes not — that if a company invested the time, money and effort to make something green, they must have skimped or cut back somewhere else.

“Deliberately enhancing a product to make it more appealing may actually lead to a decrease in consumer interest,” wrote George Newman, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management and lead author of the research. “Green enhancements lead consumers to assume that the company diverted resources away from product quality, which in turn drives a reduction in purchase interest.”

In an email, Newman said that since today’s product supply chains are complex and opaque, we don’t really know much about what goes into the things we buy or when companies cut corners. “People often have limited information, so they tend to make guesses about how companies allocate their resources in developing a product,” he said. “In our research, we find that the default assumption seems to be that improving the green dimensions seems to take away from other benefits.”

In experiments, subjects evaluating fictitious brands of dish soap or drain cleaner who were told that the products were designed to be eco-friendly showed little inclination to buy them, but they weren’t put off if they believed that the green result was just a coincidence.

If we think a product’s earth-friendly attributes came about because the company was trying to achieve better performance or some other non-green goal, we’re OK with going green because we don’t suspect the company of shortchanging us on quality or performance.