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SUSTAINABILITY

High prices can make wealthy feel entitled to unsustainable goods

By our News Team | 2022

Putting a higher price tag on certain unsustainable items doesn’t necessarily discourage purchase. In fact, the opposite may apply.

Around the world, there is a trend towards encouraging consumers to buy fewer unsustainable items in the interests of saving the planet. One of the obvious ways to do this is to raise the prices of those items.

Or not? Research published last week by the University of Pennsylvania in the US indicates that in some cases the opposite will apply.

According to the study, high prices may not deter wealthy people from buying unsustainable goods – instead, hefty price tags can trigger those in the upper class to buy these products.

Sustainability

Image by Andi Graf from Pixabay

In a series of studies, the researchers – including Karen Winterich, Professor in Sustainability at Penn State – found that upper-class people were more likely to buy unsustainable goods, such as individually packaged snacks, when they had a higher price tag. Further analysis found this was because the higher price made those consumers feel entitled to the benefits of these products, despite the cost to the environment.

Additionally, said the researchers, this effect extended to other ‘socially costly’ situations, like traveling to a beach that was suffering environmental damage from too many tourists.

However, the team of academics also found that when participants were encouraged to think of everyone being equal, this effect went away. Winterich said the findings, recently published in the peer-reviewd Journal of Marketing Research could potentially be used to help consumers make more sustainable choices.

“If we want to turn off the purchase of socially costly products, then we need to focus on messaging strategies that encourage people to think more about the overall equality of human beings,” Winterich said. 

Prompt consumers to think about equality

“When we prompt people to think about equality, or to think more about the environment, then we can circumvent this effect and make them not as likely to accept these social costs just because they paid a high price for the product.”

According to the researchers, previous studies have found that, in general, most people prefer products that offer social benefits, such as being ‘green’ or good for the environment. However, when it comes to making purchases, many customers are still choosing products that are convenient, or perform better, over those that are more sustainable or socially conscious.

Winterich and co-author Saerom Lee, an Assistant Professor of Marketing and Consumer Studies at the University of Guelph in Canada, were curious about why people continue to buy these products, especially when they come at a higher price.

The researchers found that, while higher social class people felt justified buying socially costly products when they also cost more money, there was also a limit to what these participants found acceptable.

“It’s possible for people to have a chronic sense of entitlement, but our findings were focused on this specific tendency for price to trigger a feeling of being justified in their purchases,” Winterich said. 

“We’re also not talking about really severe social costs. If the cost would be very high, like someone being physically harmed, we wouldn’t see this effect.”

The researchers theorized that people who describe themselves as being in a lower social class may think more communally, which may protect them from feeling entitled by paying a higher price.

“This might come from the experience of having to rely more on their community, and therefore being more communal-minded and less likely to think transactionally,” Winterich said. “They are more likely to recognise the social cost and think of it as hurting their community. They’re not willing to incur that cost, even if they pay more.”

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