An astonishing report has found that consumers who buy green products may be more likely to cheat, lie and steal than those who choose conventional items.
The report's authors, Nina Mazar and Chen Bo-Zhong at the University of Toronto, say that 'green products do not necessarily make for better people'. Rather, the moral halo we assume after buying ethical goods may mean we indulge in less virtuous behaviour as a result – a phenomenon known as moral balancing, or the licensing trap.
And there is more bad news for green consumers.
In a separate report, Vladas Griskevicius, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota, found that individuals are more likely to forgo luxury and spend more on a green item, but only when others can see that they are doing so. Left alone to shop online, the same consumers will choose the more luxurious, less green, products.
'Green purchases are often motivated by status,' says Griskevicius. He puts our behaviour down to competitive altruism, the notion that we compete for status by trying to appear more altruistic than those around us. 'Being seen as a caring individual gives you status and prestige.'
With both reports, especially the first, it would be hasty to draw conclusions about the real world from one experiment. And all of us at Psychologies believe it's preferable to buy green than not.
Fortunately, there are a few ways to buy green and remain morally virtuous. First, it helps just to know that green consumption can lead to less desirable behaviour, so that you're on your guard against it. And recalling times when our behaviour was morally suspect curbs any tendencies to feel smug, which in turn makes us less likely to engage in self-interested, rather than selfless acts.
Finally, making ethical and pro-social behaviour routine rather than something worthy of special praise helps us to avoid the moral balancing trap. Says Nina Mazar: 'It should be the normal thing to do, that we engage in without too much thought.'
Just a few ideas to add to your shopping list next time you're heading out for a basket of ethically sourced and sustainably produced goods.