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Environmentally Conscious Advertising Can Backfire

Even if they mean what they say, ads focused on sustainability can hurt a company’s reputation, researchers find.

By Nathan Collins


A man and his Patagonia jacket. (Photo: Vik Approved/Flickr)

Just as automobile manufacturers eventually realized that they could sell more cars by advertising safety features, a growing number of companies are starting to figure out that they can sell more stuff by focusing on sustainability. But, according to a new study, those efforts could backfire, even for companies that are serious about conservation and the environment.

In the first of four experiments, Yale University researchers Tamar Makov and George Newman presented 463 participants with two (real) ads for Patagonia jackets, one with a tagline that called on people to consume less (“Don’t buy this jacket”), and another with a more conventional tagline (“Try on adventure”), along with a fake newspaper article that emphasized either the financial or reputational gains Patagonia reaped. Then, in addition to rating the outdoor clothing company on traits like trustworthiness and ethics, participants provided both an overall approval rating and an indication of their willingness to buy Patagonia products.

Those results suggest that a win-win scenario, in which the business benefitted financially from environmental initiatives, was actually pretty bad for its reputation. When the ad was conventional or the newspaper article emphasized gains to Patagonia’s reputation, experimental participants gave the company an average rating of between six and 6.3 on a nine-point scale. But when the anti-consumption ad was paired with a newspaper article highlighting Patagonia’s subsequent profits, the average rating dropped to 5.4, a decrease of between 11 and 17 percent compared with the other conditions.

“The risk of eliciting negative public responses following the adoption of green business practices is not limited to ‘greenwashing’ or other forms of disinformation previously examined.”

(For what it’s worth, the “Don’t buy this jacket” campaign appears to have been quite a boon to the company’s bottom line, suggesting a different sort of backfire—namely, a lot of people went out and bought that jacket.)

In a second experiment, 123 people read both about Patagonia’s profitability and its well-known sustainability efforts, but in different orders—and with interesting consequences. When participants read about profitability and then sustainability, they rated the company worse than if they read about sustainability first and profitability second.

“Together these studies suggest that the risk of eliciting negative public responses following the adoption of green business practices is not limited to ‘greenwashing’ or other forms of disinformation previously examined,” the authors write in Nature Climate Change. Even if a company really does care about the environment, they argue, efforts to promote environmentally conscious buying could backfire, at least as far as its green reputation is concerned.

“At the same time, companies that publicize their environmental goals may play an important role in the transition to a more sustainable future by encouraging consumers and industry peers to follow suit,” the researchers add. “Thus, this research highlights the difficult balance between adopting progressive strategies that align financial and environmental goals, and the effective communication of those efforts to the broader public.”