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Why going green won't make you better or save you money

(Marc Rosenthal For The Washington Post)

Local home-appliance and building contractors who specialize in green products see examples of such indulgence almost every day. They have begun to warn customers that installing green products in their homes does not give them license to overconsume: Don't run the plasma TV all night just because you put solar panels on your roof; don't take endless showers because your water is heated off the grid; don't do more loads of laundry because your machine is energy-efficient.

There is ample reason for such warnings.

Lucas Davis, an energy economist at the University of California, Berkeley, has published a study showing that after getting high-efficiency washers, consumers increased clothes washing by nearly 6 percent. Other studies show that people leave energy-efficient lights on longer. A recent study by the Shelton Group, which advocates for sustainable consumer choices, showed that of 500 people who had greened their homes, a third saw no reduction in bills.

"Subconsciously, I think this is just part of human nature," said Jason Holstine, owner of Amicus Green Building Center in the Kensington. "It's like, 'If I just do a little, I'm off the hook and my conscious is clear. Give me a pat on the back, and thank you very much.' Then it goes too far."

"They think, 'I'm being a good person, I can do more of this stuff and still come out ahead,' " said Frank Zeman, director of the Center for Metropolitan Sustainability at New York Institute of Technology. "Although the problem is that they will never come out ahead. This goes to the heart of the sustainability challenge."

But for luxury retailers, this behavior is often a boon. Uzma Khan, a marketing professor at Stanford who studies the psychology of buying, once asked study participants to choose between buying a vacuum cleaner or designer jeans. Participants who were asked to imagine having committed a virtuous act before shopping were significantly more likely to choose jeans than those not thinking of themselves as virtuous.

"That's the amazing thing here: People don't even have to do good for this effect to happen," Khan said. "Even if they plan to do something good, it will give them a boost in their self-image. Any type of situation where you have guilt involved, you will see this, and so this happens in luxury goods."

And neither the customer nor the retailer could know it's happening.

Moral licensing behavior extends, in a different way, into dieting. Khan showed in a study last year that people ate more chocolate while drinking Diet Coke than while drinking more, sugary fare. Dietitians in the region report all sorts of odd justifications from clients eating bad food while trying to lose weight. Rovenia Brock, a District dietitian, says she has clients keep a food and activity diary because it is the only way for them to see that ordering a diet soda at McDonald's is slowing their progress.

Without the diary, "it's helter-skelter and their behavior will be all over the place," Brock said. "It's like spaghetti on the wall." When they write down their behavior, the inequitable trade-offs come into full view -- if they don't lie. Many clients, uncomfortable with seeing the truth revealed in their diary, simply leave it out, she said.

Brock said she sympathizes with clients who engage in moral licensing. It turns out that she's not so different from them. All her diet counseling apparently makes it easier for her to decide to gulp down a pint of Haagen-Dazs banana split ice cream.

"I feel like I deserve to have it," she said. "I know I'm gonna work out, work it off, blah, blah, blah. It starts out with a cup, and then later on I can hear it calling me from the freezer. One scoop turns into another. Like my clients, if I pick up the pint and put in a spoon, I'm done. That's my goose cooked, royally."

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