Is Going Green Unmanly? Eco-Friendly Choices and Gender

We want facts to be enough. A greener lifestyle just makes sense, right? Just keep enlightening the public about the clear, rational danger of climate change and the clear, rational action that is urgently necessary. Wait…why isn’t it working?

If this past election season has taught us anything, it’s that facts are not enough. “Facts” in the political arena become slippery, changeable, explosive. Each of us knows, unshakably, that our facts are the true facts. But though we like to see ourselves as logic-driven, we are social mammals. Our beliefs are formed tribally and instinctually. And a big part of our beliefs and social actions depend on group associations and self-image.

Recently the Journal of Consumer Research suggested that men may actively avoid environmentally-friendly products and behaviors such as recycling, because “green” choices are stigmatized as feminine.

According to some social scientists, there’s more to buying laundry soap than price, fragrance, and phosphates. Our everyday consumer choices (as well as our political opinions) are ways for us to publicly signal “this is who I am.” We are, in a sense, pack animals. We share important beliefs with those we see as respected leaders, whether these are family authorities, prominent community members, or people we feel we know (though they don’t know us) through news media. In addition to fortifying our group allegiances, while we go about our everyday business we are also subtly displaying our gender identity, just as most other species do. Can something as mundane as choosing cling wrap over reusable food storage really show our unconscious need to be perceived as masculine or feminine? If that sounds far-fetched, consider the more obvious. Does a man anxious to prove his virility buy a tiny efficient hybrid car, or a gas-guzzling shiny red V-8?

Gender, Class, and ‘Eco-aversion’

In December, the Journal of Consumer Research suggested that men may actively avoid environmentally-friendly products and behaviors such as recycling, because “green” choices are stigmatized as feminine. Obviously not all men share this eco-aversion. We all know guys who drive less, avoid disposable plastic, and buy seasonal local produce. But given a large sample of men, they showed consistently less concern for the environment and commitment to lower-impact choices, when compared to women of the same demographic. Social class complicates the issue. While conservation used to be bipartisan, lower-income Americans have come to associate environmental causes with that devil, elitism. Men who hunted, farmed, and fished once considered themselves stewards of nature, but the shifting demographics of the major political parties have dramatically altered the landscape.

Blame testosterone or conditioning? As the ongoing transgender debate reveals, the more we learn about gender identity, the more confused we, as a nation, get. Look at the public comments responding to any current feminist issue on social media: a tangle of primitive fears and anger, overlaid with attempts to rationalize and justify those gut-level defenses. Research published in Psychological Science (see below) even implicates the size of your biceps. Apparently men with greater upper body strength — the media paragon of “manly” — show greater self-interest in their political views. While it’s easy to argue that saving the earth is in everyone’s self-interest, a short-term “me” focus is unlikely to encourage diligent composting or weekend beach cleanup outings.

This kind of thing can be hard to talk about. No one wants to be perceived as anxiously guarding (or denying) their manliness or femininity. Few would reduce their own choices to covert sexual signaling — we like to think we have solid, rational reasons for how we choose to spend our money and time. “I don’t have time to recycle.” “It doesn’t make a difference anyway.” “My work requires me to drive a nice car and travel frequently.” “Organic is a scam.” “You can’t prove humans affect the climate.” But advertising executives, with increasing dexterity, have learned to bypass that frontal cortex that thinks it’s running the show. Powerful ads play directly to our unconscious primal drives. Something as simple as a logo design, in the hands of an expert marketer, conveys a host of messages about who should buy this product, what the product says about who you are, and how the product can optimize your life. These unspoken promises, of course, are largely based on fantasy. Nonetheless, they are tremendously effective.

Branding ‘Green’ Products

“Green” products tend to use colors and images which most viewers recognize as feminine. The style of the fonts and graphics also subtly target middle-class women. But interestingly, women are less likely than men to choose a product based on gender-targeted packaging details.

As a fun experiment, try walking through a busy commercial district and noticing which fonts or graphics strike your fancy, and what businesses they advertise — the results might surprise you! Such exercises in marketing-awareness help bring these psychological dynamics into the light of day. Sorting out the fantasy from the facts is more important than ever in the age of greenwashing — the deliberate manipulation of environmentally-inclined consumers to spend money in ways that often give only the thinnest lip-service to an “earth-friendly” dream.

The most powerful advertising relies on unconscious influence. When consumers are savvier, we can take back our power to choose based on our values, not our insecurities. After becoming more ad-aware, we can carry our personal research into our families: who reminds who about which items can be recycled? Who researches ways to conserve water or heat at home? Who takes responsibility for weighing the carbon impact of a vacation, a home renovation, or a new smartphone?

What if the marketers of eco-products chose bold, primary colors, aggressive and dynamic graphics, and images of stereotypically “manly” models to lure consumers? A wise move? Probably not. There’s a good reason women are heavily targeted in advertising and packaging: they buy more overall, mostly because a majority of women are still acting as caregivers for a household which may involve children, elders, and perhaps even an adult male who would rather not have to choose which toilet paper to bring home. Marketers are keenly aware that legal and social advances in gender equality have not, by and large, freed women from primary responsibility for household work such as cooking and shopping. And men are still burdened with the silent command to conquer, not nurture.

But when it comes to environmentally-friendly choices the problem is rooted in caring, not buying. Eight years of Gallup poll data was analyzed to reveal that women tend to both know and care more about climate change than their male counterparts — although the men showed more confidence in their beliefs. Perhaps that’s no surprise. Women are socialized to be kind, thoughtful, and safety-conscious, while men are typically raised to show strength and fearlessness. Most of us can laugh off that conditioning as “outdated” — at least our intellectual selves can. But in creating a society where every person can freely harness both the masculine and feminine energies within, we’ve got our work cut out for us.

Maybe typical eco-packaging, with its pastoral images and gentle pastel-colors, is behind the times not just because it evokes feminine stereotypes, but because it masks the urgency and intensity of the task we face.

The goal? Harness that courageous macho hero-energy to fight a dragon worthy of our fiercest attack. We all have it within us, regardless of our gender identity. Maybe typical eco-packaging, with its pastoral images and gentle pastel-colors, is behind the times not just because it evokes feminine stereotypes, but because it masks the urgency and intensity of the task we face.

The Luxury of Choice

Making “green” consumer choices — or not — is what we now term a “first world problem.” The United Nations predicts the world’s poorest may be hardest hit by environmental degradation and climate change. Vulnerable communities tend to lack the luxury of choice on such topics as recreational jet travel, disposable electronics, and single-use plastics. While the US is slashing foreign aid to those affected, we’re newly championing coal and oil. It’s becoming increasingly clear: for every step in the right direction, there are some massive roadblocks in the way of real progress toward environmental justice and accountability.

So rather than exhausting our energy in vainly using facts trying to convince relatives and childhood friends to change their spending habits, let’s get out in the fresh air. Take a walk to our local town hall meeting or elected representative’s office, and stand up for environmental protection on the local, state, and federal level. The stakes are too high to stop at reusing plastic bags or choosing a hat made from recycled pop bottles. Many of us are already “voting with our wallets” and making the lowest-impact purchases we can. It’s time to show the world that the fight to save the earth is for everyone. We all have a conqueror and a nurturer within us, and right now, it’s all hands on deck.


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