How Green Is My Value: Exploring the Relationship Between Environmentalism and Materialism

Bobby Banerjee, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Kim McKeage, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
ABSTRACT - Environmentalism is enjoying a rebirth of interest in marketing and consumer behavior. This paper explains and clarifies environmentalism, and explores its relationship with another important consumption-oriented value, materialism. In general, the two are negatively related and may be considered competing orientations. Furthermore, the intricacies of the relationship between various aspects of materialism and environmentalism suggest potential marketing strategies for the promotion of "green" products and environmental concern in general.
[ to cite ]:
Bobby Banerjee and Kim McKeage (1994) ,"How Green Is My Value: Exploring the Relationship Between Environmentalism and Materialism", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 147-152.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 147-152


Bobby Banerjee, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Kim McKeage, University of Massachusetts, Amherst


Environmentalism is enjoying a rebirth of interest in marketing and consumer behavior. This paper explains and clarifies environmentalism, and explores its relationship with another important consumption-oriented value, materialism. In general, the two are negatively related and may be considered competing orientations. Furthermore, the intricacies of the relationship between various aspects of materialism and environmentalism suggest potential marketing strategies for the promotion of "green" products and environmental concern in general.


Environmentalism is enjoying its second wave of interest and renewal as a topic of vital concern. Environmental destruction first became a national issue with the observance of "Earth Day" on April 22, 1970. Promoted in part by increased media attention, the North American public has focused their attention on issues like air and water pollution, depletion of the ozone layer, deforestation, and a host of other environmental topics. The last two decades have seen increased legislation promoting environmentally friendly production processes and products (Landler, Schiller and Smart 1991), new products launched with a specific environmental appeal (Dillingham 1990), increased spending by firms on "Green Advertising" (Iyer and Banerjee 1992), and increased public participation in recycling (Roper 1990).

The volume of academic research on environmentalism has also been immense, notably in the fields of education, sociology and psychology. Although researchers in marketing and consumer behavior first studied environmental issues in the 1970's, their attention has been cyclical. Interest in the environment appears to be reviving in recent years: the last two ACR conferences have seen competitive and special session papers on the environmental impact of consumer behavior and the Summer 1993 AMA conference had a special track on environmentalism. In addition, the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing devoted the entire Fall 1991 issue to the environment, and Psychology and Marketing and the Journal of Advertising are also bringing out special issues on the topic.

One topic that is often discussed in the popular (and alternative) press is the impact on the environment due to consumption. The dominance of consumer motives among North Americans has led to a "throwaway" society due to the proliferation of consumer goods. The dominant paradigm of this consumer culture is materialistic values (Belk 1983; Fournier and Richins 1991; Richins and Dawson 1992). For example, Mukerji (1983, p. 8) defines materialism as "a cultural system in which material interest are not made subservient to other social goals". This perspective of materialism sets the stage for competition between personal consumption goals and more social goals like environmental protection. However, to our knowledge, there are no empirical studies examining the constructs of environmentalism and materialism.

This paper has two purposes. First, we examine the construct of environmentalism and develop a measure of the construct. Despite more than twenty years of research on public concern for the environment, knowledge of what actually constitutes environmentalism is limited (Dunlap 1985, cited in Gray 1985 p. xiii). A precise conceptualization is lacking and construct definition has generally been weak. Thus a major purpose of this paper is to provide a comprehensive picture of environmentalism and its various components.

Second, we examine the relationship between materialistic values and environmentalism. Theoretical work on materialism emphasizes consumption and acquisition of products and services. We expect that these values are incompatible with environmentalism and in this study we explore the relationship between these competing orientations and discuss the appropriate theoretical basis for such a relationship. Specifically, we examine the dimensionality of materialism and environmentalism and their relationships. We also examine the relationship between materialism and pro-environmental intentions and behaviors.

In the following sections we discuss the constructs of environmentalism, review the theoretical background of each construct, and examine the relationship between these two constructs.


Environmentalism: Past conceptualization and measurement

Concern for the environment has usually been conceptualized as an attitude (Gray 1985, p. 22). However, this conceptualization is not without problems, in part stemming from researchers' disagreement about the appropriateness of a tripartite (cognition, affect, and conation; Cf. Maloney, Ward and Braucht 1975), versus a unidimensional, evaluative construct (Dunlap and Van Leire 1978). For instance, many "attitudinal" environmental scales include beliefs, knowledge, intentions, and behaviors (Arbuthnot 1977; Arcury et al. 1987; Constantini and Hanf 1972; Horvat and Voekler 1976; Kinnear and Taylor 1973). Other researchers have advocated the elimination of behaviors from the construct (Gray 1985).

Current measures of environmental concern also differ in terms of the substantive issues they address (Van Leire & Dunlap 1981). Much variation occurs due to the domains various researchers include in the "the environment," although attitudes toward air and water pollution, conservation, and wildlife preservation are commonly measured (Balderjahn 1988; Constantini and Hanf 1972; Cutter 1981; Dunlap and Van Leire 1984; Dyar 1975; Kassarjian 1971). However, conceptualizing environmental concern as attitudes toward substantive issues limits the construct to awareness and knowledge of specific environmental problems, especially those promoted in the media. A thorough conceptualization of environmentalism should logically also include a global level of concern.

The existing measures also differ in their theoretical conceptualization. This variation is due to the differing assumptions of what constitutes environmental concern. Past research has measured respondents' expression of concern, their perceptions of the seriousness of environmental problems, their support for legislation, and their involvement with proenvironmental behaviors (Murch 1973).

Environmentalism: A formal conceptualization

For the purposes of this study, the term environmentalism appears most inclusive. Our conceptualization of environmentalism involves the following:

1. Beliefs about the relationship of humanity and nature. Environmentalism embraces the belief that humanity and the biophysical environment are interdependent, rejecting the view that humans are intended to dominate nature (Dunlap and Van Leire 1984).

2. Beliefs about the importance of the environment to the self. This involves personal relevance, interest in environmental issues, and feelings of connectedness with the environment.

3. Beliefs that current environmental conditions are a serious problem facing the world (Murch 1974).

4. Beliefs that some radical changes in current lifestyle and economic systems may be required to prevent environmental damage (Catton and Dunlap 1982)

This conceptualization allows people to vary in their levels of environmentalism based on the strength of their beliefs. Thus, environmentalism can have a variety of behavioral consequences. For instance, product choice and purchase can be influences by environmentalism. Changes in lifestyle and other consumption behaviors, like walking or biking instead of driving, or repairing and reusing products are also possible. Other consequences are activism (e.g. signing petitions), joining environmental organizations, and keeping abreast of current environmental developments.


In recent work, materialism has been conceptualized as an economic consumer value (Inglehart 1981; Richins and Dawson 1992) emphasizing the type and quantity of goods consumed. Materialism has also been conceptualized as one end of a materialist-postmaterialist continuum (Inglehart 1981; Knutsen 1990) where post-materialist values stress self-expression, belonging, and quality of life and reject the notion that possessions are the source of happiness. Post-materialistic values downplay monetary and economic rewards, concentrate on social goals, and promote a cooperative approach to problems. Protection of the environment therefore coincides with post-materialist values (Knutsen 1990).

In contrast, an individual with materialist values places a very high importance on worldly goods (Belk 1984). These values can be exhibited in three principal realms (Richins and Dawson, 1992). Acquisition centrality refers to the central place of possessions in the lives of materialists. Acquisition as the pursuit of happiness refers to materialists' belief that possessions are essential to their happiness. Finally, possession-defined success refers to materialists' evaluation that success is measured by the kind of "things" one owns. The products owned by materialists are not only chosen and acquired for their utility value, but also for their status value.

Acquisition and consumption are central motives that drive materialists' behaviors, so they would not hold environmental protection as a core value. The importance of environmental concern to materialists' self-concept should not be as strong as acquiring material goods. Preoccupation with material goods may preclude any major influence (or even existence) of environmental values. For environmentalists, consumption choices are dictated by values and beliefs placing greater emphasis on environmental protection whereas for materialists, possession and consumption per se are central values and choices dictated by beliefs that acquisition of goods brings happiness and defines success. Thus, we expect a negative relationship between materialism and environmentalism. Since both environmentalism and materialism can influence consumption behaviors, we also expect a negative relationship between materialism and environmental intentions and behaviors.


Environmentalism Measure

Questionnaire items consistent with our conceptualizations were selected and adapted from several existing scales (e.g. Dunlap and Van Leire 1978; Maloney, Ward, and Braucht 1975; Weigel and Weigel 1978). These items were selected based on the domains of environmentalism described earlier. Additional items were also developed to reflect these domains and other domains not specifically measured in prior research (lifestyle changes, economic systems, self-relevance). After initial screening, 29 items remained which formed the environmentalism measure. Intentions to perform pro-environmental activities and environmental behaviors were two additional scales included to check the validity of the environmentalism measure.

Materialism Measures

Materialism was measured using the scale developed by Richins and Dawson (1992). This eighteen item measure consists of three subscales each containing six items dealing with materialism as a sign of success, as a central value, and as a route to happiness.


The instrument consisted of the materialism measure, the environmentalism measure, environmental intentions (5 items), environmental behaviors (9 items), and a social desirability scale (12 items). The instrument was part of a battery of personality and other psychological tests given to 309 students at a Northeastern university. All respondents were enrolled in an introductory marketing course and received extra credit for completing the survey. In addition, they were entered into a lottery.


Dimensions of environmentalism

Exploratory factor analysis of the environmentalism measure suggested a three factor structure. Initial analysis using the principal components revealed four factors with Eigenvalues greater than 1, with a simpler and interpretable structure obtained from varimax rotation. The first three factors accounted for 52.1% of the variance and were retained for subsequent analysis. The fourth factor had mixed loadings, and only a few items loaded on this factor, so it was dropped from subsequent analysis. The loadings of the environmentalism scale items are presented in Table 1.

The first factor accounted for the largest percentage of variance (37.8%). Items which comprised this factor dealt with personal interest in environmental issues, importance and personal relevance of environmental conditions. In general, these items measure the level of inherent concern an individual has for the environment. These are intrinsic and personal components of environmentalism, which we labelled Personal or Internal Environmentalism. This factor appeared to reflect the first two domains of our conceptualization of environmentalism, i.e. beliefs about the relationship between humanity and nature, and personal relevance of environmental issues.

The second factor accounted for 8.1% of the variance. Items that loaded strongly on this factor were individual perceptions of the severity of environmental problems like air and water pollution, deforestation, and wildlife extinction. This factor appeared to capture the domain of problem recognition discussed earlier and is labelled Substantive Environmentalism.



The third factor accounted for 6.2% of the variance. Items in this factor were convenience, economic trade offs, and external perception of environmental problems (like media attention). These items also included costs and benefits of consumer products with respect to the environment, the role of future generations, and the effects of environmental legislation on industry and the economy. This factor appeared to reflect the economic and lifestyle domain, and we labelled it External Environmentalism.

Reliability and Validity

Coefficient alpha for the summed environmentalism scale was 0.92, and for the subscales were 0.88 for internal environmentalism, and 0.81 for external environmentalism.

A preliminary validation check for the measure involved examining its relationship with pro-environmental intentions (r = .62) and self-reported behaviors (r = .47). Table 2 summarizes these correlations, as well as those for the subscales. Intentions were measured based on a five point scale (strongly agree/strongly disagree) with several statements concerning voluntary recycling, contributing to environmental groups, petition signing for environmental protection and generally promoting awareness of environmental issues. Other items measured recycling behaviors regarding glass, paper, cardboard, plastic and cans, and consumption behaviors such as looking for recycled products and packaging, reading labels for environmental safety, reading environmental magazines, and avoiding environmentally irresponsible companies' products.

A number of studies on environmental concern have found that females tended to be more environmentally concerned than males (Arcury et al. 1987; Borden and Francis 1978; Schan and Holzer 1990). Various theoretical explanations have been offered to account for this finding, such as the ecologically benign female role of nurturer and the male-dominated mastery of nature through technological developments (McStay and Dunlap 1982). Consistent with past research, we found that females' environmentalism scores were significantly higher (t=2.01, p<0.05) than males.

Social desirability was tested because environmentalism is a pro-social value. No significant relationship was found between environmentalism and the social desirability scale.

Dimensions of materialism and reliability

Richins and Dawson (1992) found a three factor structure of the materialism measure. An almost identical pattern of results was obtained in this survey, with all but two of the 18 materialism items loading on the factors discussed earlier. These two items had mixed loadings and were excluded from further scale analysis. Coefficient alpha for the summed materialism scale was 0.83, and alphas for the subscales were 0.76 (success), 0.72 (centrality), and 0.68 (happiness). Consistent with the findings of Richins and Dawson (1992) we did not find any significant gender differences in materialism, nor did we discern any social desirability bias.

Environmentalism and Materialism: The Relationship

As discussed earlier, we expected to find a negative relationship between materialism and environmentalism since these are competing values. We found a negative correlation, albeit a small one (r=-0.20, p<0.01) between environmentalism and materialism. This relationship was hypothesized based on the literature which posits the two constructs as opposite manifestations of an individual's orientation toward consumption. That is, materialism is generally considered to be a pro-consumption value whereas environmentalism is a conservation-oriented, anti-consumption value.





We conducted additional correlational analysis of the respective constructs (see Table 3). The internal and external dimensions of environmentalism were negatively and significantly correlated with all three dimensions of materialism. The strongest correlation was between external environmentalism and materialism as success (r=-0.27, p<0.01). Thus, materialists, especially those who equate material goods with success, appear unconcerned with the environmental consequences of consumption. The internal dimension of environmentalism, most indicative of core values of conservation is also significantly and negatively related to materialism as centrality, which indicates a core value of consumption.

The environmental intentions and behaviors included in the instrument can further illuminate the relationship between materialism and environmentalism. These intentions support more ideological manifestations of environmentalism. We expect that because of materialists' preoccupation with goods, they would be less willing to consider these pro-environmental actions.

The environmental behaviors suggest constraints on consumption of goods, compared to the more ideological actions of petition-signing and contributing money. Since product acquisition and consumption are central values of materialists, they should be less willing to perform these behaviors.

Correlation analysis supported these hypotheses (see Table 3). Materialism was negatively correlated with both intentions that supported ideology (r=-.12, p<.05) and pro-environment consumption patterns (r=-.15, p<.01). Within materialism, the success dimension had the greatest negative correlation with consumption (r=-.22, p<.01). In addition, both success and happiness were negatively correlated with ideology (r=-.14, p<.05 for success; and r=-.16, p<.01 for happiness).

The success dimension appears to be important for designing interventions to bring about behavioral or ideological change to protect the environment. In the ideological domain, this might include framing environmental concern as an appropriate value for successful, self-actualizing consumers. In the consumption domain, it could involve positioning environmentally friendly products as higher status goods, or attempts to discredit non-green competitors as "downscale" or passT. Because of the strong relationship between the success domain of materialism and these indicators of environmentalism, this alignment of environmentalism with status seems to have good potential for Green marketing. In addition, the significant correlation between the happiness domain of materialism and the environmental intentions would indicate that stressing the positive emotional benefits of involvement with environmental issues could also work as a strategy to promote green products to materialists.


In general, it appears that environmentalism encompasses at least three domains: a central, abiding concern with conservation issues; a localized concern with specific environmental problems, and a preoccupation with the economic and personal effects of environmental damage. Environmentalism is negatively related to materialism, and the two constructs may be considered competing orientations toward and ethic of conservation, with environmentalism serving as one broader manifestation of post-materialistic concern with broader social goals.

In an attempt to promote environmentally-friendly consumption, marketers may find it more profitable to bring environmentalism to the realm of consumption through products and packaging innovations stressing success, self-actualization, and status virtues of green consumption. This approach may be more effective than to directly challenge the ideology of consumption centrality and efforts to replace it with core environmental values. Marketers and public agencies can attempt to change perceptions of possession-defined success to include products that are less harmful to the environment by stressing either a success and status aspect of environmental responsibility, or the potential positive emotional or social rewards to be gained by a more green lifestyle. This approach is in contrast to commonly used environmental advertising campaigns that evoke negative affect (e.g. fear or guilt) among consumers.

Further research in this area can explore the strength of the relationship between materialism and environmentalism. For example, the product positioning strategies of companies that launch "green" products can be examined to see whether the utilization of status appeals or the potential for emotional and social fulfillment are useful strategies. Furthermore, experiments examining the relative effectiveness of advertising and promotional appeals using these themes could be conducted. It will be interesting to examine whether more upbeat emotional appeals are more effective than the emotional appeals featuring fear and guilt which are now commonly used.


This study suffers from several limitations. First, this is an exploratory study in construct definition. More work in scale development and refinement (e.g. test-retest reliability) is required to establish the reliability and validity of the environmentalism scale.

Second, the correlations between environmentalism and materialism and its components are small although in the expected direction. These small correlations could be due to measurement errors. As the measures are refined the correlations may increase. However, even given the small correlations, interventions to promote environmentally friendly consumption or attempts to change public perceptions may be most effective if "green" consumption can be positioned as part of a success-oriented lifestyle. This positioning would appeal to the more materialistic consumers who might be unwilling to be converted to an environmental "ideology."

Third, this study only begins to explore the relationship between materialism and environmentalism. The exact nature of the relationship is not fully explained. For instance, we did not attempt to provide a temporal perspective on the process wherein materialism leads to lower levels of environmentalism or whether high levels of environmentalism lead to post-materialist values. More research is required before a full understanding of the development of these value-configurations is reached.


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