How we adopt sustainable innovations

In the December issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology there is an interesting article (Noppers et al., 2015) about how we adopt sustainable new products and services that can help mitigate environmental problems. Many governments and environmental interest groups encourage the adoption of these sustainable innovations, but these innovations will only become mainstream if individual consumers are interested in adopting these innovations.

Noppers et al. (2015) studied the introduction of the electric car and found that earlier adopters were more interested in electric cars and had a stronger intention to purchase than later adopters. The main reason was bescause earlier adopters valued the symbolic attributes such as status more positively than later adopters, while both groups did not differ in their evaluations of the environmental attributes (i.e. lower emissions) and instrumental attributes (i.e. safety, comfort, loading capacity) of the electric car.

The positive valuation of the symbolic attributes by early adopters is often refered to as the costly signaling effect, when people engage altruistically in responsible behavior to assert their status. There is however a limit that an early adopter is willing to incur the costs for a costly signaling effect when sustainable innovations can have instrumental drawbacks.

The costly signaling effect is not really an issue for later adopters. They show much more functional behaviour as they want to signal that they have made a smart investment.

In general the article shows that all consumers, irrespective of their adoption stage, are more likely to adopt a sustainable innovation (in this case the electric car) when the product or service has positive instrumental and environmental attributes. However the environmental attributes are a less strong predictor of adoption likelihood.

Norbert Bol


Noppers, E., Keizer, K., Bockarjova, M., & Steg, L. (2015). The adoption of sustainable innovations: the role of instrumental, environmental, and symbolic attributes for earlier and later adopters. Journal of Environmental Psychology.

Photo credit: bjornmeansbear / Foter / CC BY-SA

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