Light bulbs and the pitfalls of 'green' marketing

A recent study on the effect of 'green' marketing on light bulb purchases underscores the role ideology plays in energy efficiency. To sell more energy efficient products, companies should rethink eco-advertising.

Will Burgess/Reuters/File
Electrical salesman Dave Ehret of Sydney poses with an old-style incandescent light bulb (R) and a new energy-saving compact florescent bulb (L) at a warehouse in Sydney.

Want more people to buy efficient light bulbs? Ditch the "eco-friendly" label.

That's one possible takeaway of a new study on the politics of energy efficiency. It's a reminder that the sharp debate over America's energy future doesn't reside solely in Congress but stretches all the way down to the aisles of the local hardware store. If manufacturers want to boost sales of an energy efficient appliance or other product, they should tout something other than its environmental benefits. 

Otherwise, conservatives won't buy them. 

"There’s an existing negative bias against these products," said Dara O'Rourke, an associate professor of environmental and labor policy at University of California, Berkeley, in a telephone interview. "Certain people view them, some rightly or wrongly, as working less well and costing more."

Even when the economic benefits are clear, politics can dampen purchases. 

In the new study, 210 adults were educated about the money-saving benefits of the CFL and given $2 to buy an incandescent or a compact fluorescent (CFL) bulb. (They got to keep what was left over.) When the incandescent was priced at 50 cents and the CFL at $1.50, liberals and conservatives preferred the CFLs and bought them at about the same high rate. But when the CFLs came with a "protect the environment" label, conservatives and even moderates were less likely to buy them.

"People have different energy-related values which can influence their choices," Rick Larrick, a Duke University professor and coauthor of the study, said in a statement, "including leading them to reject options that they recognize as having long-term economic benefits."

Of course, ideology-infused purchases aren't limited to one end of the political spectrum. A liberal shopper might install solar panels or pay more for a hybrid car even if they never personally recoup the savings.

But not opting for the 'green' choice isn't necessarily a sign of environmental-apathy.

"I doubt it means conservatives see hybrid vehicles and say, 'The heck with the environment, let’s burn the dirtiest forms of energy we can,'" said Benjamin Cole, director of communications for the conservative Institute for Energy Research, in a phone interview.

The rejection of an eco-friendly label is more a rejection of what conservatives view as federal energy policy gone awry, he adds. "The politicization of energy policy has served to exacerbate the natural distrust of government, which tends to be a more conservative impulse."  

Light bulbs are a particularly touchy subject. In 2012, a law took effect requiring household bulbs use 30 percent less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs. Some interpreted this as a government ban and put light bulbs at the center of debate over personal liberties.

Less debatable are the energy benefits of CFL bulbs. Traditional, incandescent bulbs are a century-old technology that lose 90 percent of their energy in the form of heat. CFL bulbs, albeit costing more and containing a small amount of mercury, use 75 percent less energy, produce 75 percent less heat, and last up to 10 times longer.

The proliferation of eco-advertising has watered down that money-saving message, some say. It has pushed companies to look for more subtle ways to capture the relatively narrow slice of shoppers actively seeking energy efficiency and environmental stewardship in consumer products.

"The market will grow," said Anna Clark, president of EarthPeople, a Dallas-based sustainability communications firm, in a telephone interview. "But I don’t think it will grow by hammering away at the green message." 

Companies shouldn't necessarily lead with the eco-friendly angle, marketers say, and are better off emphasizing the money-savings of energy efficiency.

"If we just step back and wonder what really resonates with most people, it's not the eco message," Ms. Clark said. "It doesn't mean we should stop using it, but we’ve got to get better about using it and make it more relevant."

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Energy: Residential and commercial lighting account for about 12 percent of US electricity consumption.

Environment: New efficient lights reduce carbon emissions but contain trace amounts of polluting products.

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