Academic journal article Economics & Sociology

Greenwashing: A Consumer Perspective

Academic journal article Economics & Sociology

Greenwashing: A Consumer Perspective

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. The purpose of this research is to investigate the effects of green corporate advertising and corporate environmental performance. The study uses attribution theory borrowed from general psychology to explain factors of effectiveness in green advertising. An experiment with N=305 university students in the Northwestern United States was conducted. Findings indicate that there is a significant interaction effect between green advertising communication and Corporate Environmental Performance such that while under positive firm performance green advertising results in slightly higher attitudes toward the brand than general positive corporate messaging, under negative firm performance green advertising results in significantly lower brand attitudes than when a general corporate message is used.

JEL Classification : E21, Q57

Keywords: Attribution theory, green marketing, green advertising, greenwashing, corporate advertising, consumer attitudes

Introduction

The purpose of this research is to investigate the effects of green corporate advertising and corporate environmental performance. The study uses attribution theory borrowed from general psychology to explain factors of effectiveness in green advertising. The contribution of the study lies in the fact that it offers a deeper explanation for consumer reactions to green advertising and it links greenwashing to consumer responses.

As the BP oil spill and the company's preceding "Beyond Petroleum" campaign illustrate, unfulfilled promises in the green marketing realm can be oil on fire. Would BP have been better offnot touting its green credentials if management was not committed to live up to it in the form of higher corporate environmental performance? Or conversely, have the green communication efforts helped prevent a larger negative brand attitude drop after the accident? This paper is trying to help answer such questions.

Literature review Greenwashing

General greenwashing literature

The literature on "greenwashing," the intentional misrepreseation of a firm's environmental efforts (or the lack of it) is ever expanding (Alves, 2009; Delmas and Burbano, 2011; Furlow, 2010; Gillespie, 2008; Greer and Bruno, 1996; Paladino and Pandit, 2012; Ramus and Montiel, 2005; TerraChoice, 2010). This line of scholarly work takes a decidedly macro-approach, it conducts its investigations in the sociological, legal, ethical-critical realm.

Greenwashing: a consumer perspective

But how do consumers react to such greenwashing attempts by corporations? What are the micro-level consumer processes that take place? One of the most important contribution this paper is attempting to achieve is to link the disparate greenwashing literature to the consumer behavior and communications research literatures by offering an explanation for consumer reactions to greenwashing.

Attribution theory

Attribution theory in psychology and general marketing

Part of the answer to how consumers react to greenwashing may lie in consumer attributions. Attribution theory (Harvey and Weary, 1984; Heider, 1944; Kelley, 1971; Kelley and Michela, 1980) is a general psychological theory, which describes how consumers explain others' behavior by "attributing" causes to what they may observe. Similarly, in marketing (Folkes, 1988; Mizerski, Golden, and Kernan, 1979; Oliver, 1993; Weiner, 1986, 2000), consumers may attribute causes to firms' behavior explaining in their minds why a certain event happened. Attributions tell us about the motives of why people do what they do.

Application of attribution theory to green marketing

In our context, if a consumer perceives a certain behavior relating to the environment by a firm (e.g., polluting behavior, exceptional attention paid to environmentally-friendly production technologies, etc.), they may develop cognitive explanations why the firm does these things (e.g., for self-interest, for genuine care about nature, for pragmatic business reasons, etc. …

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