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Psychology, Sustainability

Co-opting social values

Greenwashing is when a company makes false or unsubstantiated claims about how environmentally friendly a product is. They are frustrating because they can be hard to distinguish from true environmentally friendly products. But what about when companies make claims that tie themselves, or at least attempt to tie themselves to broader social values like a clean environmental, racial justice, or feminism? Companies do this to improve their own reputation, but if it is seen as inauthentic it can have negative effects, and not just for the company.

Ruttan and Nordgren (in press) explored the impact of businesses aligning themselves with social values on the support for those values. And what they found is concerning. When the values are used to improve profits or a company’s reputation it can undermine the values and people’s support for those values. For example, a NASCAR ad wishing people a Happy Earth Day decreased support for the event compared to a similar ad from a conservation group. In a similar experiment, the authors found that reading a fictional story about several companies promoting pro-environmental concerns in order to increase profits decreased the likelihood that people would donate to support those concerns.

This same devaluing didn’t happen when the company legitimately supports the cause. As an example, Patagonia had a campaign to repair rather than replace their jackets. This more authentic concern does not reduce support for the value.

I’m intrigued by the why behind this research finding. Does the connection between profit and social values make the social value seem less worthwhile? Are there ways to counter this effect?

Greenwashing is a problem because it makes it harder to make sustainable decisions. But the fact that using public support for what are important social values can diminish support for those values is potentially more concerning. As more companies want to use these campaigns to improve their reputation they may slow down positive change. I hope the research continues and moves into ways to combat the effects.

This research is not yet published, I wrote this based on a press release on the research.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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