• Making people guilty to persuade them to buy green doesn't work well
  • Research finds using 'pride' is the best way to sell sustainable goods
  • Making people feel good about their past achievements works best
  • Findings can be used to persuade people to fly less as well

Remembering the pride we felt after making environmentally friendly decisions is more likely to motivate us to make green choices in future than guilt, new research suggests.

The study found consumers were more likely to buy an electric car after recalling how good they felt after other sustainable purchases.

However, making people feel guilty about past purchases that were not environmentally friendly did not encourage them to ‘buy green’ in future.

Encouraging people to make environmentally sustainable choices, from flying less to avoiding beef, could limit greenhouse gas emissions, helping to tackle climate change.

Yet while most people state that they care about being sustainable, only a few “deep green” consumers currently change their behaviour.

The findings could encourage businesses to re-think the way they sell green products and behaviours, such as solar cells and adding house insulation, to the public.

Lead researcher Hugh Wilson, Professor of Marketing, said: “Attempts to encourage consumers to make more sustainable choices have traditionally been dominated by negative emotions, such as guilt and fear.

“While this has achieved some success, it can have a really bad side effect: people can lose heart and give up.

“Rather than making people feel guilty, it is possible to make people feel good about their past achievements and encourage them to make sustainable choices in future.

“This is not restricted to choosing which products to buy. It may prove equally useful to promote other sustainable behaviours such as driving less and saving energy at home.”

How pride helps in choosing the greener car

The research was conducted by Warwick Business School, Cranfield School of Water, Energy, and the Environment and Trinity Business School, Dublin. The paper, Pride in my past: Influencing sustainable choices through behavioural recall was published in Marketing & Psychology.

In a series of experiments, researchers asked more than 300 people what kind of car they would buy next.

Those who were first reminded of the pride they felt after a previous ‘sustainable purchase’ were significantly more likely to anticipate feeling proud about buying a low-carbon car in the future – as well as significantly more guilty if they imagined making an environmentally-damaging choice. As a result, they were significantly more likely to choose a low-carbon car. This was because they wanted to repeat the same positive feelings of pride.

By contrast, those asked to recall the guilt they felt following an unsustainable purchase were no more likely to anticipate feeling proud about buying a low carbon car in future. Nor were they more likely to anticipate feeling guilty about buying a higher-emission model.

Professor Wilson said: “Pride exists precisely to motivate our future behaviour. People like to get onto a positive spiral. Guilt exists for good reasons, too, but when it comes to the planet, we definitely need to keep some pride in the mix.

“The environment hitting the news at the moment is invaluable; however, we need to show people that they can contribute positively.

“We also need to conduct further research to check which decisions anticipated pride is best at engendering.

“For example, many consumers think about carbon when buying a car, but fewer do when buying kitchen white goods. Similarly, they think about social sustainability - such as being fair to farmers - more when buying coffee or tea than soft drinks or alcohol.

“For categories like soft drinks, we’ve found you need to use social forces, too.”

Hugh Wilson is Professor of Marketing and teaches Marketing on the Full-time MBA, Strategic Marketing on MSc Business with Marketing and Creating Value with Marketing Experiences on MSc Marketing & Strategy. He also lectures on the Principles of Marketing and Strategy on the Undergraduate programme.

Follow Hugh Wilson on Twitter @hughnwilson.

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