When a Win-win business strategy is seen as worse than Business as Usual
Co-authored with George Newman
Many organizations seek to align their financial goals with environmental ones by identifying strategies that maximize profits while minimizing environmental impacts. Examples of this ‘win-win’ approach can be found across a wide range of industries, from encouraging the reuse of hotel towels, to the construction of energy efficient buildings. Although win-win strategies are generally thought to reflect positively on the organizations that employ them, in a series of four experiments we find that people tend to respond negatively to the notion of organizations profiting financially from environmental initiatives. In fact, observers tend to evaluate environmental win-wins less favorably than profit-seeking strategies that have no environmental benefits. Specifically, the present studies suggest that how such initiatives are communicated to the general public may be of central importance. Therefore, organizations would benefit from carefully crafting the messaging around their win-win initiatives to ensure that they avoid this type of backlash.
We suggest that the negative response to environmental win-wins results from a fundamental psychological divide between social relationships that are perceived as communally-oriented versus those that are perceived as market-oriented (hereafter, ‘communal’ and ‘market’). We further identify important boundary conditions of this phenomenon and suggest ways in which organizations undertaking sustainability initiatives can avoid potential backlash.
Branding matters more than technology for determining the environmental costs of smartphones
It is well established that intangible product qualities such as brand name, appearance, or style greatly affect the way consumers evaluate products and the utility such products provide. Despite the important role intangibles play in shaping consumer choice, the environmental consequences of intangibles have been little explored. Relying on a unique database of approximately 500,000 online sales of used smartphones, we demonstrate that smartphone depreciation is not uniform but varies among brands. We further show that brand name may be of greater importance for determining the overall lifespan of smartphones than technical features such as memory size or reparability. Our results underscore the importance of incorporating the consequences of intangibles when assessing the environmental impacts of consumer products.