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Does Buying Green Make Us Better People?

4/14/2010 12:00:00 AM


In my favorite “South Park” episode, the town of South Park is threatened by a huge cloud of “smug,” generated by self-righteous, hybrid-driving citizens. As more and more people get behind the wheels of their fuel-efficient cars, the “smug” cloud grows larger and tempers grow shorter, with hybrid drivers heckling the hybrid-less.

The “South Park” creators brilliantly depict a shadow side of the environmental movement. We may not go around flaunting it, but most of us think that, to some extent, our sustainable lifestyles makes us better people. We conserve water, try to reduce our carbon emissions and buy fair-trade and green-certified products. We deserve a pat on the back, right?

Our lifestyle choices do say a lot about us, but no choice is made in a vacuum—and a choice to buy green products might make us think we can be less conscious in other areas of our life, according to a recent study. The study, “Do Green Products Make Us Better People?”, suggested that consumers who buy green products act less altruistically—and are more likely to cheat and steal—than consumers who purchase conventional products.

Why? The study’s authors assume that everyday living is filled with conflicted decisions, always bound together. People who feel guilty about a previous action are more likely to act in an ethical way (as a means of making up for bad behavior), whereas people who have recently done good deeds are less likely to scrutinize their behavior. Buying green products—a good deed—makes people feel better about themselves, meaning they are more likely to indulge in self-interested behavior.

I, for one, plan to keep buying green (and feeling smug about it). And I’m trying not to think about what “bad” things I might be able to do in return…

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