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How Framing Sustainability as Strength Can Help Win Male Audiences

Organic Valley's 2015 "Save the Bros" campaign poked fun at "manlier" men who explored their softer side by living a more conscious lifestyle. | Image credit: Organic Valley

Are traditional gender norms of “manliness” slowing the advancement of the sustainable economy? Turns out, they might, according to new research in the Journal of Consumer Research.

But while prior research attributes this gender gap in sustainable consumption to personality differences between the sexes, the new study proposes that it may also stem partially from a prevalent association between "green" behavior and femininity, and a corresponding stereotype — held by both men and women — that sustainable consumers are more feminine.

Building on prior findings that men tend to be more concerned than women with gender identity maintenance, the researchers argue that this green-feminine stereotype may motivate men to avoid green behaviors in order to preserve a macho image.

"Men’s resistance may stem in part from a prevalent association between the concepts of greenness and femininity and a corresponding stereotype (held by both men and women) that green consumers are feminine," the researchers assert. "As a result of this stereotype, men may be motivated to avoid or even oppose green behaviors in order to safeguard their gender identity."

Breaking the Gender Barriers

The researchers tested two approaches — one affirming a man’s masculinity before introducing him to environmental products and another changing the associations people have toward sustainable products. Interestingly, the researchers found that if you reframe responsibly made products as more masculine, men are more likely to adopt them. Rather than using traditional marketing messages about sustainable products — which typically are perceived as feminine — they altered the messages to be more masculine in nature by changing the phrasing and colors. When this was done, the researchers found that men were more likely to prefer the sustainable product.

In China, one study was conducted at a BMW dealership and focused on a model known for being an eco-friendly car. While surveying shoppers, the researchers changed the name of the car from the traditional, environmentally friendly name to “Protection,” which is a masculine term in China. Even with all other descriptions of the car remaining the same, the name change did increase men’s interest in the car.

In another study, the team compared men’s and women’s willingness to donate to sustainability-focused charities. They called one “Friends of Nature,” with a bright green logo featuring a tree, and the second was named “Wilderness Rangers” showcasing a wolf howling to the moon. Women favored the more traditional sustainability marketing, while more men were drawn to the masculine branding over the traditional.

Sustainability as Strength

The studies offer evidence that the concepts of "greenness" and femininity are cognitively linked and show that, accordingly, consumers who engage in green behaviors are stereotyped by others as more feminine and even perceive themselves as more feminine.

While I don’t want to get bogged down in the fact that gender is a social construct, I’ll say that because we live in a world where men tend to associate masculinity with boldness and strength, it's not a bad idea for sustainability communicators to tailor their messages this way. The research uncovers valuable information for sustainability communicators and marketers: that to reach male audiences sustainability itself should be reframed as an act of strength. To purchase sustainable products and embrace a more sustainable lifestyle can ensure that resources are safeguarded for generations to come.

If men see manliness as being strong enough to take care of one’s own, how could trashing the environment that threatens survival ever be seen as manly?

I wouldn’t encourage anyone to use the study’s finding that men’s willingness to engage in sustainable behaviors can be influenced by threatening or affirming their masculinity, but sustainability communicators would be smart to use insights into men’s sense of self to gear their sustainability message to a male audience.


Based in San Francisco, Mike Hower is a sustainability strategist and storyteller on Edelman's Business + Social Purpose team where he works with some of the world's leading brands on corporate sustainability strategy and stakeholder engagement. With several years of… [Read more about Mike Hower]


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