Sustainable Status: Are You Going Green to Be Seen?


You’ve got a closet full of vintage frocks from the thrift store, a house full of energy-efficient appliances, organic sheets on your bed and a Prius in your driveway. It’s not exactly “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” but these choices aren’t about status – or are they? A new study on the evolutionary psychology of status and environmentalism finds that many people go green for appearances, not real altruism.

After all, the image-conscious needn’t tote teacup Chihuahuas in Chanel purses and drive gas-guzzling sports cars to be like celebrities when hip stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz are cruising around in hybrids and carrying reusable bags.

In the recently published paper, “Going Green to Be Seen: Status, Reputation, and Conspicuous Conservation,” (PDF) University of Minnesota professor Vladas Griskevicius asserts that people will give up luxury in favor of sustainability – but only when other people are watching.

“Many green purchases are rooted in the evolutionary idea of competitive altruism, the notion that people compete for status by trying to appear more altruistic,” notes Griskevicius.

Griskevicius and his colleagues performed three experiments in which participants were asked to choose between luxury items and greener options when shopping for a car, household cleaner and a dishwasher.

Some of the subjects were told to imagine that they were about to start a new high-powered job where they’d need to impress their boss and co-workers in order to move up. These people – with status in mind – chose the green products.

Of course, this study doesn’t mean we’re all strutting around like organic peacocks hoping our neighbors will notice our sustainable superiority. But thinking about this from another point of view, what is wrong with environmentally friendly choices being the cool thing to do? In a perfect world, motivation would extend beyond the surface for everyone. Some of our fellow environmentalists will disagree, but whatever compels status-conscious consumers to make green choices is worth applauding – for a perfect world it’s not.

Image: Notions Capital

Stephanie Rogers

Stephanie Rogers currently resides in North Carolina where she covers a variety of green topics, from sustainability to food.