“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. SM says:

    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.

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  2. Heather says:

    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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  3. Ray Gaetano says:

    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.

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  4. VJBinCT says:

    My wife has had a Prius for about 5 years now, and loves it. The virtuousness does show, but I like it too, for a number of practical reasons. Certainly the mileage is great, though not mind-boggling i ncomparison to some other economy models. It also has some neat features that give it curiosity cachet.. But what I like most is the huge volume efficiency of the thing. We often travel to our kids’ houses 300-1000 miles away with huge amounts of STUFF. We fit 10 foot long lumber into it, honest to God! The newest models are supposed to be even bigger inside without much increase on the outside. Extremely well-designed vehicle. I myself wouldn’t care if it were a diesel-powered car with almost the same mileage as a hybrid. It just works well as a people and goods mover.

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  5. Vania says:

    I thought the Prius wasn’t that good a choice actually, given its embedded energy, and small components travelling all over the world to make its way into the car… greenest option is to drive an old car until it can’t go any longer, even if the consumption is higher than a Prius, since most of the energy over a lifetime is used in the manufacture… I wish the myth of the Prius would be debunked!

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  6. Bill says:

    I wonder how these economists will tease out the relevant data. We own a Honda Insight – the Prius actually looks a lot like the original Honda Insight on the market years before the Prius. We see a number of Prius (Prii?) on the road, but few Insights – less money and more bang for the buck than the slightly larger Prius. Friends who own a Prius talk about gas mileage, as we do, and not their environmental concerns in the context of their car ownership.

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  7. Politburo says:

    The whole analysis seems to hinge on the assumption that all hybrid vehicles are equal. This is far from the case. There is a reason that the Prius is the best-selling hybrid, and it’s not because the design is distinctive or because of ‘street cred’. It’s because it gets the 2nd best mileage and sacrifices pretty much nothing from what we expect in a “normal” car. The Insight might get better mileage, but sacrifices a lot (the authors hand-waved away this huge counterexample in a footnote).

    All the other hybrids are weak tea since they were not purposefully designed as a hybrid vehicle and only get marginal MPG improvements that do not offset the increased purchase price.

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  8. Debbi Evans says:

    Great post, thanks!

    There’s another paper from the Uni of Minnesota very much along the same lines – you may also find it useful/interesting…http://www.csom.umn.edu/assets/140554.pdf

    “Going green to be seen: status, reputation and conspicuous consumption”


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