As Quartz’s fashion reporter, I write a lot about sustainability. Between pesticides required to grow raw materials for clothes and toxic chemicals used to dye and finish them, fashion is a major polluter—and that includes men’s clothing as much as women’s.
Yet a few weeks back, when someone asked me if I knew of many men’s brands focused specifically on sustainable clothes, I could hardly think of any. In my experience, women and brands targeting them tend to be much more interested in protecting the environment. It’s far less common in menswear.
As it turns out, there’s a reason for that, according to new research published in the Journal of Consumer Research. In a series of seven studies, researchers found evidence that people perceive consumers who behave in eco-friendly ways as “more feminine,” and that those consumers “perceive themselves as more feminine.” What’s more, men may avoid green behaviors in order to protect their masculinity.
Prior research indicates that women do tend to be more environmentally responsible, say the paper’s lead authors, Aaron Brough, assistant professor of marketing at Utah State University, and James Wilkie, assistant professor at University of Notre Dame. Typically the gender gap is attributed to inherent personality differences, such as women being more altruistic and empathetic. But Brough believes our stereotypes about sustainability play a role in behavior as well. This is the first research, he says, to clearly demonstrate the link.
“Our studies definitely show that this green-feminine stereotype exists, and that it influences consumer choices,” he writes in an email. The study even concluded that whether men engage in sustainable behaviors “can be influenced by threatening or affirming their masculinity.”
The researchers first sought to establish that people do stereotype sustainable products and behavior as feminine, and then set out to manipulate their reactions. In one example, they tested how 472 respondents, roughly half of whom were men, felt about a household drain cleaner when it was described as “better for the environment” versus ”better at dissolving grease.” Both men and women viewed it as less masculine when it was “better for the environment.” But the researchers also found that men tended to prefer the environmentally friendly version more if their masculinity had just been affirmed.
In a separate experiment, the researchers partnered with BMW dealerships in China, and found that replacing one word in an ad for an eco-friendly model with a more masculine term caused the small group of male subjects to view the car “much more favorably.”
Brough’s conclusion: “When a man feels secure in his masculinity, he will feel more comfortable going green because his macho image is no longer at risk.”
The reasons for the association between being sustainable and being feminine aren’t clear. The authors note that, as previous research has pointed out, pro-environmental marketing often uses colors and styles traditionally associated with being feminine. (They didn’t elaborate, except to say light colors are typically viewed as more feminine.)
Green marketing may also target areas women have typically been more involved in, such as cleaning, family health, cooking, and laundry. Lastly, Brough says if women are genuinely more concerned about the environment than men—some evidence suggests women link it to protecting themselves and their families—the stereotype may just result from observed behavior.
In any case, if green marketers do want to target men, they may want to consider manly affirmations and branding. But guys, a threat to your manhood is no reason to ignore sustainability at this point.