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Consumers are more forgiving if faulty products are environmentally friendly

Consumers are more forgiving if faulty products are environmentally friendly

Dr Anshu Suri - Business Express

Dr Anshu Suri, UCD Garfield Weston Assistant Professor of Marketing at UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School

As concerns surrounding climate change increase, the market has seen a rise in green products; defined as products which include at least one attribute that is better for the environment than their conventional, non-sustainable, counterparts. 

Examples include plant-based laundry detergents, bio-acetate sunglasses made from biomaterials, or pens made from recycled plastic. Although the increase in sales of green products in recent years represents a societal shift towards sustainability and a change in consumer behaviour, is there any difference in how consumers respond to product failures of green products?

This was the basis of our research conducted alongside Dr Ali Tezer from HEC Montréal and Dr Matthew Philp from Ted Rogers School of Management.

Across an empirical field analysis and eight controlled experiments, we investigated what happens when green products fail or don’t live up to expectations. This included analysing consumer ratings on, consumer willingness to write negative reviews, and consumer preference for refunds over replacements, among other measures.

Our findings show that consumers want to help others avoid a bad experience while also supporting environmentally-friendly products. This conflict leads to consumers reacting less negatively to the failure of green products than conventional ones, which we refer to as the ‘greenguard effect’.

Although consumers don’t overlook shortcomings of green products, they are more forgiving, perceiving their restraint from negative feedback as a form of support for the environment. This suggests that the observed greenguard effect is driven by prosocial perceptions, with consumers considering not reacting negatively to a failure of a green product as a more prosocial behaviour, as negative reactions may harm the success of a product that benefits the environment and society.

Across our studies, a number of factors were also demonstrated which would negate the greenguard effect. This included consumers who are not environmentally-conscious; when the negative experience does not influence the primary function of the product; when the motivation to help others by sharing negative product experiences is made salient; or when the environmental benefits of a green product is an unintended consequence.

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As product failures are inevitable, firms proactively develop strategies to recover from such failures to avoid consumers’ frustration that may follow. This need has been amplified by the increasing impact a regular consumer can have when faced with a product failure. For example, a consumer who could vent their dissatisfaction to a handful of people offline can now reach far more through social media.

Our research suggests that one way to mitigate negative consumer reactions to a product failure is to be more environmentally friendly by incorporating green product attributes into product design. The benefits of the greenguard effect would persist regardless of whether it is a central or peripheral product attribute that offers the product’s environmental benefits, giving brands more flexibility and opportunities to include green attributes in product design.

However, to ensure the product experiences the greenguard effect if a failure occurs, the environmental benefits should not be an unintended consequence of product enhancement. Brands should communicate to consumers that they are intentionally designing a product that incorporates green attributes.

Our findings also indicate ways in which to improve the efficiency of managing product failures. For example, brands could devote more resources in terms of customer service to managing product failures of their conventional products as these products are more susceptible to negative consumer responses. Brands could also incorporate reminders and cues about the green attributes of their products. Then, when consumers come to complain following a product failure, these reminders would make the product’s environmental benefits more prevalent to the consumers and potentially diminish negative reactions.

It is also demonstrated that consumers who experience a green product failure are more likely to forgive the brand and give the brand a second chance by preferring a product replacement (vs. cash refund) or a gift card to the focal brand (vs. a competitor).

These tactics can inform customer service strategies on how to compensate consumers following a product failure. For example, if the failed product was green, consumers might be more open to receiving a product replacement or store credit, retaining consumers’ loyalty and being more lucrative for the company. However, if the failed product did not have a green attribute, consumers might prefer a cash refund, which is arguably more expensive as a form of reimbursement.

This offers critical insight for marketers and companies involved in green product manufacturing and marketing, shaping future marketing strategies and product development around green products.


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