Is eco-friendly unmanly?

Is sustainable consumption a women’s issue? Studies suggest that there is a gender gap in green behavior. Compared to women, men tend to litter more, recycle less and have a larger carbon footprint. Does this mean that climate change is literally a man-made disaster?

Pink vs. blue razors, coke zero vs. coke light – you might have already noticed that many products are marketed towards a specific gender. Interestingly, this pink blue divide also seems to exist for many eco-friendly products. From reusable period products to shampoo bars in eco-friendly packaging – many sustainable products are marketed towards women. While there is no doubt that the wider availability of eco-friendly products is a great development, it seems questionable that these products are disproportionately aimed at female audiences.

What causes marketers to primarily target women when trying to market sustainable products? Next to the fact that women are responsible for the majority of consumer purchases, studies have shown that women display greater concern for the environment and are more willing to take action on behalf of the environment. Men on the other hand litter more, recycle less, have a larger carbon footprint and feel less guilty about living a non-green lifestyle.

Gender identity & green behavior

While women’s greater concern for the environment and green behavior is often attributed to certain personality traits such as women’s tendency to be more prosocial and altruistic, recent research suggests that there is more to the picture. According to a study published in the journal of Consumer Research, the concepts of “greenness” and “femininity” have become cognitively linked, meaning that both men and women categorize green behavior as feminine: Not only are consumers who engage in green behaviors perceived as more feminine, this stereotype also extends to perceptions of the self. If you ask people to recall green (vs. nongreen) behavior, both males and females subsequently perceive themselves as more feminine.

As a result of this, men may believe that engaging in green behavior could make them seem unmanly. A study published in the journal sex roles suggests that men shun environmentally friendly activities such as recycling or carrying a reusable shopping bag for fear of being perceived as gay. As behaviors and possessions can signal our identity and prompt inferences about personal characteristics, gender identity is “saveguarded” by avoiding or opposing eco-friendly behaviors. Who would have believed that a reusable shopping bag, a useful tool to prevent plastic waste, could threaten men to the core of their very being?  

Man with canvas bag

Photo by Doruk Yemenici on Unsplash

Feminine vs. masculine branding

Given the fact that men seem to avoid eco-friendly behaviors due to their feminine association, can anything be done about this? Research says yes, and it’s all about the branding. 

The solution is fairly simple. If threats to men´s masculinity can lead to a reluctance towards green behavior, making men feel like “real men” (well, you know: big, strong and powerful) might help to turn this effect around.  

A team of researchers tested whether masculine (vs. conventional) branding can indeed increase men’s willingness to engage in green behaviors. Let’s have a look at some examples of how changes to branding can help to induce behavior change.

“Friends of Nature” vs. “Wilderness Rangers” – which green organization would you be more likely to donate to?

Imagine two different green organizations: one is called “Friends of Nature”, has a green logo of a tree and describes its mission as preserving nature. The other organization is called “Wilderness Rangers”, has a logo showing a black and blue howling wolf and describes its mission as protecting wilderness.

What do you think of these organizations? Which one would you be more willing to donate to? A study found that men are much more willing to donate to the masculine-branded “Wilderness Rangers” organization, even though both organizations are perceived as being similarly environmentally-friendly.

Electric cars – the eco-friendly vs. the protector claim

Can a single word be powerful enough to change how people evaluate an electric car? Turns out, the answer is yes.

Imagine a BMW car dealership in China that offers electric cars, which are usually branded as eco-friendly. Here´s what happens if you present an electric car to customers as either the “BMW i3 eco-friendly model” vs. the “BMW i3 protection model” (the latter being a masculine word in Chinese). The researchers of the study found that adapting just one word towards more masculine branding significantly increased male participant’s evaluation of the electric car. Interestingly, it also decreased women´s evaluation of the electric car, suggesting that weakening the association between greenness and femininity through branding may be most effective when the majority of customers are men.

electric car

Photo by Andrew Roberts on Unsplash

On a final note, is sustainability really just a women’s issue?

Well, obviously not. We are all responsible for doing our part in living sustainable lifestyles: recycle, use energy efficiently, eat less meat, use public transport… you get the point. While overall, it is of course best to consume less, it is very unrealistic to expect everybody to be willing to significantly reduce their consumption from one day to another. This is where eco-friendly alternatives to regular products come into play. Thankfully, there seems to be a shift in many consumers’ mindset with more and more people becoming more critical and being willing to make ethical and sustainable purchases. With a help of a little masculine “real man” branding, marketers might even be able to convince men that some green products aren´t that bad.

Further reading & resources

  • Brough, A. R., Wilkie, J. E., Ma, J., Isaac, M. S., & Gal, D. (2016). Is eco-friendly unmanly? The green-feminine stereotype and its effect on sustainable consumption. Journal of Consumer Research43(4), 567-582. [Link]

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