It’s Not Easy Being Green — and Manly

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Environmentally friendly behavior needs to be re-branded to appeal to males.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Rosemary Matthews/Keystone Features/Getty Images)

Let’s face it: Mulching isn’t manly. Neither are most environmentally conscious behaviors. Taking the bus, eating less meat, even turning down the thermostat can conflict with traditionally masculine notions of power and self-reliance.

This helps explain why men are less likely than women to think and act in Earth-friendly ways. The mental association of caring for the Earth with femininity can “motivate men to avoid green behaviors in order to preserve a macho image,” writes a research team led by Aaron Brough of Utah State University. It’s just a guy thing.

But their new study suggests there are effective ways to defuse this dynamic. In the Journal of Consumer Research, the researchers offer evidence that “men’s inhibitions about engaging in green behavior can be mitigated through masculine affirmation, and masculine branding.”

They begin by describing four studies that show people really do link green behavior with femininity. In one, 194 university students were given a list of words, and asked which best described a shopper leaving a grocery store.

If the person (man or woman) was carrying their purchases in a canvas bag, participants were less likely to use such terms as “macho” or “aggressive,” but more likely to suggest ones like “gentle” and “sensitive.” And this stereotyping didn’t just apply to other people: A follow-up study found recalling “green” behaviors led both men and women to think of themselves in more feminine terms.

Another set of studies examines ways to break this linkage. The first featured 472 participants (roughly half of them male) recruited online, who began by giving a writing sample. Half were told that an instant analysis “strongly indicated that they write more like a man than a woman,” while the others were given no feedback.

Saving the environment may require convincing Americans that real men recycle.

They then read about “a new household drain cleaner,” which was described as being either “better for the environment” or “better at dissolving grease.” Afterwards, all participants rated the product on a one-to-nine scale (definitely prefer it to definitely do not).

The result: Men who had just been told their handwriting was manly preferred the “green” product more than those who did not receive that information.

“These results suggest that while men typically prefer green products less than females,” the researchers write, “affirming their masculinity can increase preference for green products to be similar to that of women.”

In another study, 322 people recruited online examined one of two versions of a fund-raising pitch from an environmental organization. Half saw a version in which “the organization was named Friends of Nature, the logo was green and light tan with a tree symbol, the font was frilly, and the mission was described in terms of preserving nature areas.” Pretty typical, in other words. The other half saw a version in which “the organization was named Wilderness Rangers, the logo was black and dark blue with a howling wolf symbol, the font was bold and lacked frills, and the mission was described in terms of preserving wilderness areas.”

The key result: Male participants “were less likely to donate to the conventional-branded green nonprofit than females.” However, “men and women were similarly likely to donate to the masculine-branded green nonprofit.”

A major reason for this was suggested in another finding: “Participants reported they would feel more masculine wearing a t-shirt featuring the masculine-branded logo” than one with the more standard image of a tree.

It all indicates “that men avoid green behaviors, at least in part, to maintain a macho image,” Brough and his colleagues conclude, “and that masculine branding can increase men’s likelihood to donate to green organizations.”

So, Sierra Club, Nature Conservatory, and the rest: Keep these results in mind during your next re-design. In the end, saving the environment may require convincing Americans that real men recycle.