Emily Huddart Kennedy, Christine Horne, “Do Green Behaviors Earn Social Status?,” Socius, 2019
Black and white photo of a large commercial plane just above the ground as if it is landing or taking off.
Photo by Bernal Saborio, Flickr CC

In Sweden, many are opting out of air travel due to “flying shame” (“flygskam”) an abashedness about using transportation that relies on fossil fuel. Instead, travelers interested in climate-smart travel are going by rail in record-breaking numbers, prompting Swedes to coin new terms for “train bragging” (“tagskryt”) and “flying in secret” (“smygflyga”).

Given that environmentally friendly practices like train travel are more often expensive and time-consuming than the alternative, it is a bit of a mystery why people are willing to adopt them. New research on the United States shows that certain eco-friendly behaviors may signal higher social status. And in the United States — given the politicization of environmental issues — it is unclear whether conservatives and liberals evaluate green consumption in the same way.

Emily Huddart Kennedy and Christine Horne used interview and survey data to investigate how American adults judge the social status of people who engage in eco-friendly behaviors like reducing consumption and consuming green products (low-energy refrigerators, solar panels, and hybrid vehicles). They also asked respondents if they thought Democrats and Republicans were likely to view people who engage in eco behaviors as having higher statuses.

Respondents in both political camps expected that only Democrats would rate green consumers as having higher social status. However, their predictions were incorrect. The researchers found that green consumption is a status symbol for both conservatives and liberals alike, but reducing consumption is not. In addition, respondents on both sides of the political aisle granted status to green consumption because they associate it with wealth. Conservatives, however, were more likely to associate green consumption with knowledgeability, while liberals associated it with morality.

The connection between consumption behaviors and social status may help to explain why many people opt to conspicuously consume green forms of travel and energy rather than reducing consumption. This study also helps us to understand how conservatives and liberals agree and disagree about eco-friendly consumption, and may suggest new ways to motivate households to reduce their environmental footprint.