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If You Won’t Be Green, Then I Will! When Do Consumers Compensate For Their Partners’ Unsustainable Behavior?

If You Won’t Be Green, Then I Will! When Do Consumers Compensate For Their Partners’ Unsustainable Behavior?

Carolina Cuervo-Robert and Nagendra S M

Journal of Marketing Research Scholarly Insights are produced in partnership with the AMA Doctoral Students SIG – a shared interest network for Marketing PhD students across the world.

In the midst of a climate change crisis, it is urgent to encourage and normalize sustainable actions among individuals—especially because people fall into unsustainable behavior patterns so easily. Social influence and social norms play a huge role in fostering these unsustainable habits, as seeing others behave in unsustainable ways can justify and even fuel an individual’s own unsustainable activity. And who influences us more than our relationship partner? Understanding how individuals in committed romantic relationships behave can be insightful for companies and policymakers, as it provides insights on how to best target couples to either promote sustainable consumption or encourage sustainable behavior in the household. In a recent Journal of Marketing Research article, Aylin Cakanlar, Hristina Nikolova, and Gergana Y. Nenkov explore how people respond to their partner’s unsustainable behavior.

Across seven studies, including field and online studies, the researchers examine both hypothetical and real as well as public and private sustainable behaviors to show how one’s partner influences their sustainable actions. The authors find that when individuals are in a high power position in the relationship, they feel more responsible about their identity as a couple, which leads them to compensate for their partner’s unsustainable choices. By doing so, they are able to maintain a sustainable couple identity. This only happens when the person is in a high power position in the relationship. They also find that the effect is attenuated when the person has a weak green identity, meaning they don’t care as much about the environment and that protecting it is not as important for them.


The authors provide robustness to their findings by showing how they can apply to a variety of situations. They find that exposing people to their partners’ unsustainable behaviors can increase intention to behave sustainably, interest in taking action, and learning more about sustainable services, as well as donation giving and product selection.

How Can Marketers Use This Research?

Policymakers and marketers targeting couples to encourage sustainable behaviors or the purchase of sustainable products can act on this knowledge. As individuals with high relationship power tend to compensate for their partners’ unsustainable behaviors when they care about maintaining a positive and sustainable couple identity, businesses and other entities can build specific discourses leveraging this to increase sustainable choices among households. Indeed, it could be possible to design campaigns highlighting a person’s responsibility to build a sustainable couple identity, or highlighting how the selection of one sustainable product over another could reflect positively on the couple. It is also worth keeping in mind that high power is circumstantial: one person might hold more power over specific decisions in certain contexts than in others. As such, it could be possible to target high-power individuals by developing proxies. For example, the authors do this by targeting women in a wedding planning ad.

Marketers can develop advertisements that encourage partners to take responsibility for their couple’s identity (e.g., “it is your responsibility to make your household sustainable”) to prompt those with low relationship power to increase their engagement in sustainable behaviors.

In our quest to learn more about this research project and gain additional insights, we had a chance to confer with the authors. These are the insights they shared with us:

Q: Marketing research often looks at the effects of social influence on an individual’s sustainable behavior. However, it is not often that we see articles focused on the influence of a relationship partner on sustainable behavior. What was the motivation behind such an idea?

A: All three of us have observed our partners making unsustainable choices. We were all personally interested in understanding how our partners’ unsustainable choices might affect our own choices.

Many studies in the sustainable behavior literature have examined how observing the (un)sustainable behaviors of socially distant others, such as outgroup members and neighbors, affects consumers’ own sustainable behavior. However there was no research examining how consumers’ own sustainability-relevant behaviors are influenced by their romantic relationship partners’ unsustainable behaviors. Given that a romantic partner likely exerts the greatest influence on one’s behavior, we addressed this gap by examining how sustainable choices are influenced by romantic partners’ unsustainable choices.

Q: It can be challenging for researchers to dive into aspects of consumers’ daily lives. In your article, you manage to dive into very personal areas of consumer behavior. Did you encounter any specific challenges in doing so?

A: Studying dyadic decision making is inherently difficult, but studying sequential sustainability-related decisions made by partners in a couple is even more complicated. One of the main challenges was conducting a field study. Given that recruiting romantic partners is highly expensive and time consuming, conducting a field study in which we allowed one partner to make a choice and had the other observe it required a lot of time, effort, and creativity. We had to enlist a small army of research assistants who worked tirelessly on the Boston College campus to recruit employees and carry out our complicated procedure. For our online studies, we always recruited married participants, and for one study, we recruited both spouses from Amazon Mechanical Turk, which was highly challenging. Participating couples had to complete a long and complicated procedure in which they took a photo of one of each spouse’s hands with their MTurk ID number written on a piece of paper. In these studies, we gave a lot of thought to ensure that participants could observe their partners’ choices and that the study would run smoothly for all participants.

Q: In your Facebook study, you focus on the wedding planning context as, traditionally, women hold higher power in the decision making. Did you encounter any specific campaigns aiming to increase couples’ sustainable behaviors? If not, in which other contexts could your findings be applied?

A: While we did not find any existing campaigns to encourage couples to engage in sustainable behaviors, there are campaigns in other domains, such as charitable giving (e.g., volunteering as a couple). Our findings can be relevant to the many sustainable products for couples, such as sustainable honeymoons and conflict-free diamond rings. For instance, as demonstrated by our Facebook study, relationship power dynamics may change depending on the context (e.g., one partner being responsible for grocery shopping). Marketers can capture consumers’ purchasing habits and demographic information through loyalty programs, allowing them to use other socioeconomic variables (e.g., gender, income) as proxies of relationship power to target high–relationship power consumers with advertisements that highlight their partners’ unsustainable behaviors.

Q: Beyond the uniqueness of the romantic partner behavior influence in sustainable choices, you argue that the effects observed in your paper are unique to sustainable behaviors (and not other healthy or moral behaviors). Why do you think this is the case?

A: Yes, we found no evidence that power dynamics have influence in the context of healthy consumption (e.g., whether seeing one’s partner eat something unhealthy influences one’s own healthy choices), but it is possible that power dynamics influence other behaviors that have implications for not only the self but also others. Given that individuals with high relationship power feel responsible for reconstructing the couple’s identity after being exposed to their partner’s socially undesirable behaviors—unsustainable behavior in our context—such individuals may try to compensate for their partners’ behavior in other domains where negative partner behaviors might hurt the couple’s identity (e.g., prosocial behavior).

Q: As sustainability is becoming a critical issue for consumers and companies, firms will look for insights to help them promote their sustainable practices. How can managers build on your research findings to mainstream sustainable behavior among couples?

A: First, our results show that highlighting a partner’s unsustainable behavior can increase engagement in sustainable behavior among high–relationship power individuals and does not reduce the sustainable behavior of those with low relationship power. This suggests that highlighting a partner’s unsustainable behavior in advertisements can be an effective strategy when targeting consumers in romantic relationships. Second, our research identifies two important factors that can increase the sustainable behavior of married consumers: perceived responsibility for constructing the couple’s sustainable identity and a desire to signal a positive couple identity. Marketers can develop advertisements that encourage partners to take responsibility for their couple’s identity (e.g., “it is your responsibility to make your household sustainable”) to prompt those with low relationship power to increase their engagement in sustainable behaviors.

Q: We constantly see policies being implemented worldwide to promote sustainable behaviors among individuals. Yet targeting households could lead to improved results. How could policymakers build on your findings to promote long-term sustainability among couples?

A: One implication of our research is that policymakers should tailor their sustainability communications according to individuals’ marital status. For instance, highlighting one’s negative behaviors (e.g., unsustainable behavior) directly may backfire when trying to increase an individual’s sustainable behaviors. Our results show that highlighting a romantic partner’s unsustainable behavior can be effective. Moreover, as mentioned, perceived responsibility for constructing the couple’s sustainable identity and the desire to signal a positive couple identity are important factors in a couple’s engagement in sustainable behavior. Therefore, it is important for policymakers to consider consumers’ social relationships when promoting long-term sustainability among couples. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shares information and pictures on social media such as Instagram that aim to increase household recycling rates. Our research demonstrates that such government agencies should consider appeals that enhance one’s perceived responsibility for constructing a sustainable identity as a couple. For example, to promote long-term sustainability, policymakers can regularly expose couples to advertisements that encourage each of them to take responsibility for the couple’s sustainable identity.

Read the Full Study for Complete Details

Read the full article:

Aylin Cakanlar, Hristina Nikolova, and Gergana Y. Nenkov (2023), “I Will Be Green for Us: When Consumers Compensate for Their Partners’ Unsustainable Behavior,” Journal of Marketing Research, 60 (1), 110–29. doi:10.1177/00222437221108891

Carolina Cuervo-Robert is a doctoral student in marketing, Toulouse School of Management, France.

Nagendra S M is a doctoral student in marketing, Indian Institute of Technology – Ropar, India.