Is buying “green products” about saving the environment? Or is it more about being seen to be green? A new study suggests the latter.

Consider the following car: compact sedan with a small trunk, standard cloth seats, excellent gas mileage, and a sluggish engine. It might not sound like much, but these features describe one of the most successful cars in recent U.S. history: the Toyota Prius, a small-statured automobile coveted across demographic categories. Why is the Prius is so successful?

One possibility is that the Prius is a hybrid gas-electric vehicle, meaning that it costs less to fuel. Yet it costs many thousands of dollars more to purchase the Prius than a conventional but highly fuel-efficient car such as the Honda Civic. Another possibility is that the Prius has lower emissions, making it more environmentally friendly and “green” than conventional cars. Environmentally conscious consumers may thus be willing to spend more for a car that may sacrifice on performance, features, or comfort to help the environment. Yet when the New York Times reported the top five reasons why Prius owners bought their cars, environmental conservation was last on the list. Instead, Prius owners proudly reported that the number one reason for purchasing the car is because it “makes a statement about me.”

Is it any surprise then that businesses and government are bombarding us with advertising exhorting us to be green?

h/t:  Richard Florida