“Conspicuous Conservation” and the Prius Effect

The height of conspicuous conservation? (Photo: Toyota)

This month, Toyota sold its one millionth Prius hybrid in the U.S. In 10 years, this strange-looking vehicle with the revolutionary engine has claimed a spot among the best-selling cars. Pretty impressive. But are all those Prius owners thinking mainly about better mileage and a smaller carbon footprint, or is there another incentive at work? More broadly: when people make environmentally sound choices, how much are those choices driven by the consumers’ desire to show off their green bona fides?

Two young economists, Steve and Alison Sexton, have been looking into this question. (Not only are the Sextons twins, but their parents are also economists, and Steve is a competitive triathlete.) The result is an interesting draft paper called “Conspicuous Conservation: The Prius Effect and WTP [Willingness to Pay] for Environmental Bona Fides.” When you drive a Prius, the Sextons argue, there’s a “green halo” around you. You make new friends; you get new business opportunities. In an especially “green” place like Boulder, Colo., the effect could be worth as much as $7,000.

The Sextons focused on the distinctive design of the Prius — which was no accident. Honda, Ford, Nissan and other car makers sell hybrids, but you can’t pick them out on the road (the Civic hybrid, for instance, looks just like a Civic). The Prius is unmistakable. It marks whoever is driving it as someone who cares about the environment; it’s an act of “conspicuous conservation,” an update of Thorstein Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption.” Here’s how Steve Sexton describes it:

SEXTON: A sort of “keeping up with the Joneses”-type concept but applied to efforts to make society better. I will be competing with my neighbors to donate to a charity, for instance, or to reduce energy conservation or environmental impacts.

On Marketplace, just in time for Earth Day, Stephen Dubner talks to Kai Ryssdal about this and other forms of conspicuous conservation.

Here’s where to find Marketplace on a radio station near you.

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  1. YX says:

    Why drive a hybrid if you can’t show it off.

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  2. Ross Taylor says:

    Reminds me of the Psychological Science article that concluded “purchasing green products may license indulgence in self-interested and unethical behaviors.” http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2010/03/01/0956797610363538.full

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  3. Inkraven says:

    The Sextons could have saved themselves a lot of time by just watching the South Park episode that makes fun of hybrid owners. They didn’t call it (in the show) a Pious for nothing.

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  4. Dan says:

    Makes sense. Much of what passes as pop environmentalism is driven by image especially since the most well-known “environmental” group (Green Peace) is an attention-whore. Their shallowness inevitably rubs off on its members and supporters. That is not to say that environmentalism is bad, it’s just that it’s tainted with the sins of its biggest advocates.

    BTW, the Prius is quite expensive here in the Philippines. I could buy 2 SUVs for the price of one Prius!

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    • Gary says:

      The Prius was launched in the Philippines at a whopping Php 2.25M or approximately USD 52,000. It was launched by Toyota in the Philippines in mid 2009. Well, it’s 2011 and I swear, I have yet to see one on the road. Then again, I just may not be looking hard enough. As a business statistics analyst, I would love to get my hands on data showing how many Prius units have actually been sold in the Philippines, cross reference that with the profiles of the buyers, super number crunch it and definitely conclude if Filipinos are also subject to “conspicuous conservation” and the Prius effect. In the absence of such data, I think that I’ll just do a simple cost benefit analysis on the Prius.

      By the way, I’m still not a 100% percent sure about global warming and all of its gloom and doom especially after reading Superfreakonomics (What do Al Gore and Mt. Pinatubo Have In Common) so I think I’ll just pass on the Prius and stick with my daily diesel, smoke-belching jeepney ride. It’s cheaper . . . period.

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  5. TDG says:

    I wonder, though, how a car company can reach the iconic status that seems to justify the premium Prius buyers pay for their cars. The first generation Honda Insight was available in the US seven months before the Prius, had better milage, was cheaper, and was arguably more distinct looking with its enclosed rear wheel wells. Yet the Insight (which now looks more like a normal car, BTW) never reached the iconic status of the Prius.

    Perhaps more than merely giving the driver the status of “environmentalist,” what’s really going on is that the Prius gives the driver a broader “economic elite” status – that is both the Prius and the Insight show a concern for environmental issues, but only the Prius (which is several thousand dollars more) shows the driver’s ability to afford such a car.

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    • James says:

      Do Prius buyers really pay a premium for their cars, though? The Prius is certainly cheaper than similar-sized cars from BMW, Lexus, etc.

      I can also say, having owned one for the past 7 years, that the Honda Insight was and still is far more distinctive-looking (and more economical) than the Prius.

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  6. Randy says:

    I would politely disagree with “conspicuous conservation” as a motive, at least for us, for buying a Prius. My wife has a killer commute (70 to 100 miles daily) in Washington D.C. area traffic. Gas prices were killing us so we shopped around for the best mileage we could get and the Prius seemed to win hands down. Not only did she sharply reduce the number of times she had to fill it with gas, but each fill up cost less because the gas tank is smaller. Now she fills up 2 or sometimes 3 times in a 2 week period compared to previously when she had to fill up 2 or 3 times a week. The price and amenities of the Prius compare more or less favorably with her 2 previous vehicles: a Honda Crv and a Subaru Outback (she did give up all wheel drive with the Prius….) All in all she is very happy with the Prius and I love how it treats our gasoline budget gingerly. :p

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  7. Russell Dunkin says:

    It’s certainly true. I am approached all the time, and more so when gas prices spike. I see the opposite. I have friends that are hardcore “red state” people, and will buy Suburbans for the same reason – it screams I’M A MAN! and get’s them similar fringe benefits with that crowd.

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  8. Clancy says:

    I’m not a behavioral economist or anything related to those fields, but I’d say that 90% of opinions and decisions of 90% of people are based on fitting in and improving their status within their peer group even though they rationalize it otherwise.
    I know many Prius owners, and this certainly applies to them, but it also applies to many “anti-environmentalists” I know who conspicuously drive the largest trucks they can and brag to their buddies about how much fuel they can waste.

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    • Johnny Infidel says:

      You, along with many other posters on this page, are all so sure of your own intelligence that you fail to get all the facts, and ignorantly conclude that anyone who drives an SUV and disagrees with your politics simply MUST be a “Red State Anti-environmentalist.” That is so prejudiced and short-sighted, it’s no wonder you aren’t bright enough to consider the idea that you might not know everything. Despite how deeply you believe and want it to be true, the emissions of American vehicles (SUV or otherwise) has very little affect on the environment. In fact, with modern emissions systems, the environmental impact of our vehicles is negligible, especially compared to the real polluters out there. A single container ship coming into a US port generates as much carbon emissions as 300,000 cars. Just one ship equals 300,000 cars, and the ships come and go all day BY THE THOUSANDS! But it’s not fashionable to use facts to make decisions that will actually help the environment. It’s much more hip to make prejudiced assumptions and discriminate against people different than you. If a person has the temerity to drive a different car than you and aren’t even cool enough to put the ubiquitous “COEXIST” bumper sticker on the back, then the MUST be ignorant, evil, republican white dudes, right? That you snobs of the gall to consider yourselves “open minded” is nearly as appalling as your arrogant overestimation of your own intelligence.
      By the way, to dispel your childish assumptions, I LOATHE the Right and their delusional religious zeal. But everybody picks on them. Today the Left is louder, more ignorantly sure of their cause, and more intrusive into people’s lives than the Republicans ever dreamed of. You are not nearly as clever as you think you are- please, tell your friends.

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