If you tuned into the Rio Olympics, you might have learned that American weightlifter Kendrick Farris, the only member of the U.S. men’s weightlifting team, is a dedicated vegan. Farris’s moment in the spotlight came shortly after Arnold Schwarzenegger announced he was going vegan, largely for environmental reasons.
For the most of us normal-sized non-beefcakes, giving up meat is a decidedly un-manly thing to do. (I have a colleague who says he would experiment with vegetarianism, but only in the privacy of his own home.) For Farris and Schwarzenegger, it’s probably a little easier. Their manliness is beyond dispute.
New research suggests a surplus of masculinity is precisely what’s needed to get men to go green.
Studies have shown that men generally care less about the environment than women. They recycle less, litter more and boast a larger carbon footprint than women — all with a clearer conscience. In the past, researchers explained this by pointing out that men and women are just different. Women tend to be more caring and empathetic, more concerned with health and well-being.
But a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research offers a more nuanced view. Authors acknowledge that “personality differences between the sexes contribute to the gender gap in environmental sustainability,” but they add that men may also balk at green behaviors because greenness is associated with femininity. They argue that “men may be motivated to avoid or even oppose green behaviors in order to safeguard their gender identity.”
Which feels more manly? Shooting a deer or planting a vegetable garden? Driving a pickup or driving a Prius? Caring for nature or conquering the outdoors?
As it turns out, masculinity is fragile, finite and easily depleted by purchasing environmentally-conscious cleaning products. But researchers showed that you can encourage eco-friendly behavior in men by affirming their masculinity.
Put another way, you can get men behave like women by making them feel manly.
Here are the key takeaways from the study.
- Greenness and femininity are cognitively linked. The authors offer several possible reasons for this, including the fact that “many pro-environmental messages use font styles and colors that are more feminine than masculine.”
- When people go green, they are judged to be more feminine. In one experiment, subjects read about a shopper leaving a grocery store armed with either a plastic bag or a reusable canvas tote. The shopper was seen as more feminine when carrying the canvas bag.
- People feel more feminine when they go green. In another experiment, researchers asked men and women to write about a time they did (or did not) do something that was good for the environment. Thinking about their own eco-friendly behavior made both men and women feel more feminine.
- Men generally care more about gender identity. Prior research shows men face a bigger penalty for gender-inconsistent behavior than women, That starts in childhood. One study, authors note, found “boys are punished more severely than girls for displaying gender-incongruent forms of play.” Understandably, men are attuned to gender cues.
- Men are less likely to buy green products when their masculinity is threatened. Researchers asked men to imagine receiving birthday gift cards, one plain and one sporting “a floral design on a pink background.” Men were then asked to imagine using the gift card to buy a lamp, backpack and batteries. For each item, men choose between one of two options — an eco-friendly product and a conventional version. Men who received the pink, flowery gift card were less likely to select eco-friendly product. That finding that held even when men imagined purchasing the items online, where no one could see them.
- Men are more likely to buy green products when their masculinity is affirmed. Men and women were asked to produce a writing sample. Half of the participants were told they wrote like a man, and the other half were told nothing. Participants were then asked about two kinds of drain cleaner — the first was “better for the environment” and the second was “better at dissolving grease.” Men who had their masculinity affirmed were more likely to prefer the eco-friendly cleaning product. More striking is that the men who were made to feel masculine showed roughly the same preferences as women.
- Masculine branding can make men more willing to go green. Men and women were asked how likely they would be to donate to one of two made-up nonprofits. One was named Friends of Nature. Its logo was tan and green, shaped like a tree, and featured a “frilly” font. The other was named Wilderness Rangers. Its logo was black and blue, shaped like a wolf, and featured a font that “lacked frills.” Men were less likely than women to donate to Friends of Nature. They were about as likely to donate to the Wilderness Rangers.
These findings “suggest masculine branding as a strategy that marketers and policymakers may consider when promoting green products and behaviors to men.” Authors acknowledge this remedy has limitations. Women may perform green behaviors to affirm their own gender identity, just as men avoid green behaviors to affirm theirs. Masculine branding could, in some cases, backfire with women.
If there is one takeaway from the volumes of research on environmental communication, it’s that identity is everything. Human beings act in ways that affirm their identity — men and women, Democrats and Republicans. A 2013 study found that conservatives were less likely to purchase a compact florescent lightbulb if the product promised to protect the environment — so bound up is environmentalism with liberalism.
This would suggest marketers should ditch the pro-environmental label. Sure, it may win you a few liberals, but it loses you many more conservatives. That’s because greenness and liberalism are linked, just as greenness and femininity are linked. Where products challenge identity, consumers retreat.
How do you make a product manlier? Researchers pointed to Powerful Yogurt and Broga (yoga for bros — yes, this exists) as prime examples of how to market to men — dark colors, bold fonts, masculine associations up the wazoo. When beverage companies wanted to drive up sales of diet sodas, they developed new product lines targeted specifically at men: Coke Zero, Pepsi Max and Dr. Pepper 10, whose actual slogan was “It’s not for women.”
It’s the same with eco-friendly products. If you want men to go green, you have to go manly. That means fewer trees, more wolves, and — for the love of Ron Swanson — lose the frills.