"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.


YX

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

Ross Taylor

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

Inkraven

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.

Dan

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!

TDG

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.

James

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.

Randy

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

Russell Dunkin

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.

Clancy

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.

jblog

Actually, I think the thing I enjoy the most -- along with the great engineering, comfortable ride and the terrific gas mileage -- is the instant moral high ground it conveys.

So if I see some dolt with a "No Blood For Oil" bumpersticker on his gas guzzler filling up at the Gas N Sip, I'm legally allowed to take out a tire iron and bust his windshield.

No really -- I'm pretty sure it's in the brochure.

Ranis

Interesting article. Its similar to all these high end benefit functions. While the idea is noble and helpful, sometimes its all about being seen in your expensive dress and shoes. A moral dilemma maybe?

UnwontedCandour

Finally I have the answer to why used Prius prices had been rising after the Japan earthquake. I had been scratching my head of the economic wisdom of paying more just to SAVE on fuel costs.

see the riddle here:' Costly Thrift' http://www.unexpectedutility.com/behavioural-living/costly-thrift

Zmagoon

I purchased a Pruis to reduce the amount of gas I use. If I need to spend a little more to get a vehicle to achieve this, then so be it. It is a distinctive vehicle, in a good way--shaped by hundreds of hours in wind tunnels to create the lowest coefficient of drag of any production vehicle on the market. It is one of the reasons it gets 50mpg. And if it takes conspicuous conservation to get people to drive more efficient vehicles, is that really a bad thing?

Jeremy

Interestingly, Prius drivers also get more tickets than drivers of other cars:

http://www.hybridcars.com/hybrid-drivers/study-hybrid-drivers-get-more-tickets-25919.html

Joel Upchurch

This comes as no surprise to me. Here is a comment I made on Dot Earth. "From what I can see most people concern about climate change is more of a political fashion statement than a reasoned, evidence based position. People will buy a Prius because it is a trendy thing to do, not because of their deep concern about global warming. Even if they say that is their reason, when you ask about the details, they have no idea what the impact is or even if it actually reduces their net carbon footprint."

I reminded of a comment a man made going to a party at Arianna Huffington's house. He wasn't sure about exactly where her house was in the neighborhood. He saw a Prius and had a brainstorm and followed it and it took him straight to her house. Of course, that was a few years ago when Priuii were a lot less common. If you want that kind of environmental street cred today, you would probably have to buy a Tesla.

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Stefanie

The car is the most well marketed product on the market, well maybe debt is marketed better.
The Prius is well marketed, I know there are other Eco-friendly low-gas, money saving vehicles available. However, the Prius is the only one I've driven (vacation car rentals) and it's the only one I know the name of. I am guessing that is true for many folks out there. If you are looking to buy, name recognition is absolutely a factor.

Howard

Its a much easier decision to buy the product that is the market leader in its space than to go against the grain. There are no doubt many worthy alternatives to the Prius, but if you buy the Prius you know you are making a safe choice. Maybe not the best possible choice, but a good choice. And you don't need to do a lot of tedious research to come to this conclusion.

Also, some people just do what all the people around them do. I live in something of an enviro hotbed, so I see Priuses everywhere. Buying a Prius makes you part of the club. Personally I am more of a contrarian. I look for reasons NOT to have what everyone else has. (So for example, when I decided to get a smartphone I deliberately didn't get an iphone because everyone I know has one. Its not any more rational than trend-following, but we all have our funny little ways.)

SM

Why do people buy BMW or a Mercedes? Or even a big SUV or a big house?

Sales of big SUV or luxury cars combined far outsells the Prius.

Why is it that these guys are picking on people that at least are trying to be environmentally friendly and manufacturers that produce more efficient cars?

If the authors are really concerned about conservation, they should highlight the "conspicuous consumption" like the vast majority of people who buys big SUV as a fashion statement, while never taking it off-road.

Seems to me a case of Prius envy. Or maybe they are funded by some competitor of Toyota.

Heather

I drive a Prius because I like it. I bought it 4 years ago and it has been an excellent vehicle. I carpool with my husband and only spend about $25/week on fuel - even now that the price of gas has gone up.
I'm not trying to be conspicuously ecological or anything, I'm just being cheap. It cost about the same for the Prius as it would have for the other vehicle I might have purchased (Camry, Accord or something similar) but the fuel savings do add up over time.

Our other vehicle is a Sienna. We don't drive that in order to be conspicuous either. We drive it because we sometimes need to carry 5 people, a dog and other things. It's a tool to get us from point A to point B, and I really don't care if anyone looks at it and thinks 'oh, soccer mom' because it's what works for us. The Prius is the same. It runs well, it's reliable, it's cheap to fuel and it will probably keep running for another 150,000 miles if I take care of it. What's not to like?

BTW, my husband and I have both noticed that when you drive a Prius there are lots of SUV/big truck drivers who seem to consider it a pride thing to pass. It's like they couldn't be caught dead BEHIND a Prius, so they aggressively zoom around - and it doesn't matter whether I'm going the speed limit or 10 above, they still have to pass as if I were grandma out for a Sunday drive. When we used to have a Tacoma truck, people didn't really pass like that. But the Prius seems to get that reaction.

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Ray Gaetano

Reminds me of Ron Thomason's grandmother in rural VA. When elictrification came, her family bought her an electric stove and had it installed in the kitchen.
The next time they came visiting it was on the front porch. Granny said the neighbors would not know she had one if she kept it in the kitchen.
Can't change human nature.