“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. jblog says:

    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.

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  2. Ranis says:

    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?

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  3. UnwontedCandour says:

    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

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  4. Zmagoon says:

    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?

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  5. Jeremy says:

    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

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  6. Joel Upchurch says:

    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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  7. Stefanie says:

    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.

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  8. Howard says:

    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.)

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