Hey Baby, Is That a Prius You’re Driving?

For about $20 you can announce your environmental bona fides with a canvas tote that says "I'm not a plastic bag." (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Remember when keeping up with the Joneses meant buying a diamond-encrusted cigarette case? Such ostentatious displays of wealth during the Gilded Age prompted economist Thorstein Veblen to coin the term conspicuous consumption.

Conspicuous consumption has hardly gone away — what do you think bling is? — but now it’s got a right-minded cousin: conspicuous conservation. Whereas conspicuous consumption is meant to signal how much green you’ve got, conspicuous conservation signals how green you are. Like carrying that “I’m not a plastic bag” bag, or installing solar panels on the side of your house facing the street — even if that happens to be the shady side.

Conspicuous conservation is the theme of our latest podcast, called “Hey Baby, Is That a Prius You’re Driving?” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the embedded media player, or read the transcript here.) It centers around a paper by Alison and Steve Sexton, a pair of Ph.D. economics candidates (who happen to be twins, and who happen to have economist parents), called “Conspicuous Conservation: The Prius Effect and Willingness to Pay for Environmental Bona Fides.” Why single out the Toyota Prius?

S. SEXTON: The Honda Civic hybrid looks like a regular Honda Civic. The Ford Escape hybrid looks like a Ford Escape. And so, our hypothesis is that if the Prius looked like a Toyota Camry or a Toyota Corolla that it wouldn’t be as popular as it is. And so what we set out to do in this paper is to test that empirically.

The question they really wanted to answer was this: how much value do people who lean green place on being seen leaning green? The Sextons found that the Prius’s “green halo” was quite valuable — and, the greener the neighborhood, the more valuable the Prius is.

You’ll also hear from the British writer/economist Tim Harford (author, most recently, of Adapt), who nimbly tracks conspicuous conservation in his own country, including the little windmill that popped up on David Cameron’s London roof whilst he was campaigning to become prime minister.

HARFORD: Wind power can be pretty effective. But you need a really, really big windmill in a really windy location to be efficient. These little windmills, especially in an urban environment, where you don’t get a consistent flow of wind — they generate an incredibly small amount of energy.

Cameron did win the election, in part because he pledged to build an “eco-friendly economy.” But his windmill was as much about sending a green signal as powering his toaster or even demonstrating his commitment to environmental issues.

A big part of conspicuous conservation is of course what the signals mean, and to discuss signalling theory we have Robin Hanson of George Mason University. This is a man who has argued on his blog against admirable activities. To him, they’re part of a self-interested arms race, and should be seen as such:

HANSON: Managing our appearance is actually a lot of what we humans do. Trying to understand, business, trying to understand jobs, school, even medicine — if you don’t understand people are trying to manage their image, you miss out on a lot of what’s going on.

You’ll also hear about the cars that Hanson and the Sextons drive, and we ask whether Toyota thought much about conspicuous consumption before the Sextons. South Park certainly did.

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  1. ed fernandez says:

    I think a friend in the past was a conspicuous conservationist. She drove a Jaguar when she lived in Vegas. But when she moved to upper class and “environmentally conscious” Newport Beach, CA (really in another town but her house was just a few blocks away from Newport Beach where she did her shopping), she replaced her car with a Prius. The reason was not really because she cared about the environment but, as she admitted, “It’s quite fashionable to drive a Prius here.”


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  2. Joshua Correa (james kemper extra credit) says:

    I believe wind power, solar power and going green is a good thing. However, after hearing this it is evident that some people do these actions just for show. Some want others just to see them going green or ect. Like they were talking bout since it is for good causes it might not be that bad of a method. An example i have is that I used work at United Supermarket. Although we still carry the plastic and paper bags we also sell canvas bags. I was able to see people who didn’t care about what bag or hated plastic or just hated paper. I also witnessed customers who used canvas bags. Some of the customers seemed to just do it for show. They would shop and forget them in the car and when i carried the groceries out the canvas bags would just be sitting there in the back just for looks.

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  3. Linda Rogers says:

    Where do these people think the power for their plug-in cars comes from? The electricity fairy? They aren’t “going green” They just want the dummies out there to think they are.

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  4. Joseph Stakel says:


    Green + Ego

    Rich (probably white) people buying overly expensive Priuses are practicing stroking their greegos

    They stroke their greego every time they park their proud world-saving device at Starbucks to show to the world, “Hah, I’m green! I bet you’re green with ENVY instead of green with MONEY like me!”

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  5. Cara McKee says:

    Hello, I’ve been playing catch-up on the podcasts of late and just listened to this today. Loved it. So thought provoking. You’ve inspired me to write this blog post: http://ohwedo.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/conspicuously-green.html
    Thanks for keeping my brain going while I’m doing LOTS of boring housework. :-)

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  6. Charlie says:

    Disclaimer: I am a Prius owner.

    The summary of this episode: In a world of ignorant retards, San Francisco or wherever, people will choose a Prius primarily based on it’s design/label, and not on miles per gallons.

    In a real world, people choose Prius because we can’t afford the raising gas prices. Most Prius owners don’t give a shit about environment. Businesses buy legions of Prius’s for the exact same reason. Smart people only see the bottom line, the cost. Why do you think nobody drives a 7mpg Hummer anymore. They are practically non-existent. I have always concluded Freakanomics is just a comedy show and does not actually rely on logical common sense for its entertainment.

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  7. Alex Norton says:

    The link to the paper is now broken, but it can be found here if anyone’s looking for it: http://are.berkeley.edu/fields/erep/seminar/s2011/Prius_Effect_V1.5.3.pdf

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  8. Anders says:

    I am interested in the basis for concluding that people would install solar on a roof facing the street even if this is not optimum in terms of sun.

    I am working with a 250,000 observation dataset which tells a different story: We see a REDUCED likelihood of solar adoption for houses with south facing roofs towards the street. So, the opposite. Granted, this might then be caused by a “solar is ugly” motivation, but it does at least suggest that the idea that individuals would make a completely stupid investment in solar for the sole reason of “green status” is perhaps not entirely as straightforward as sometimes portraited.

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