“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. Brad says:

    In comparing the Prius to the Civic Hybrid as “essentially the same” I think the authors actually based many of their discussion points on an inaccurate assumption. I owned a standard Civic for years and loved the car. When it was time for new car, I tried very hard to convince myself to buy the Civic hybrid, but couldn’t get around the difference in mileage the Prius offered. My Prius consistently gets me just above 50 mpg, while the Civic hybrid, according to fueleconomy.gov gets scarcely over 40 mpg. Which is really just 5 mpg more than I was getting with my standard engine Civic. The Prius offers a 20% improvement in gas mileage over the Civic. This is not a fair comparison. I would have rather stuck with the stylings of my beloved Civic, but the mileage of the Prius won over.

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  2. Ferhan says:

    I was intrigued by this topic and did some calculations on my own. You can see them here.


    There is no financial benefit to the purchaser while buying a hybrid. There is no clear and measurable environmental benefit either, since production seems to be costly and causes other indirect environmental impact. So the only thing left is the “look rich and environmental” angle.

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  3. Billy says:

    OK, accepted that there may be some “Prius Effect” that puts some small green halo around purchasers. If I gave this a great deal of thought, I’d probably come up with a huge SO WHAT? in response. EVERY friggin’ thing ANYBODY purchases says something about the purchaser, if we do enough naval gazing. There are good, practical reasons to buy a high MPG car. Are there more subtle reasons? Yeah, but there are subtle reasons for buying a black car or a red car instead of a white one. Who the hell cares? And buying a Prius says waaaaay less about Prius owners than the morons who customize their trucks with “Prius repellant” or “Rollin’ Coal”. THOSE people are serious head cases….

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