To Understand Why Consumers Buy Green Products, Use Math

Numbers reveal consumer preferences, motivations

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Christopher Hogg

What would it take for you to buy a green car? Learning why consumers might purchase eco-friendly products from cars to appliances ─ or what stops them from going green ─ is what interests Christopher Hogg.

Sounds like an exercise in consumer psychology or economics. Think numbers instead, says Hogg. He’s using mathematics to learn why consumers buy green and how policy-makers or product manufacturers and retailers might use that information to design anything from tax incentives to product rebates.

Using math to understand consumer behaviour was the theme of his just-completed master’s degree with Prof. Monica Cojocaru, Mathematics and Statistics. Now as a research assistant in her lab, he’s still working on the problem. “Applying mathematics to real-world problems motivates me,” says Hogg, who began undergrad studies in chemistry at Guelph before switching to math. “What motivates the population to go green?”

He uses computers, survey data and equations to simulate different scenarios and predict consumers’ behaviour. What motivates people to buy, say, hybrid cars? Do rebates or subsidies work? Tax incentives? Something else?

That information might help businesses and governments design policies intended to reduce emissions of pollutants or greenhouse gases, and to help conserve non-renewable resources, says Cojocaru.

Last year she studied this problem at the University of California, Santa Barbara, as a Fulbright Visiting Research Chair. There, Cojocaru looked at age, wealth and other subjective factors that affect consumers’ preference for eco-products.

Back at Guelph, she and her students have worked with economics professor Henry Thille, who has investigated consumer preferences and product adoption. Thille says economists have long used math and modelling to determine which products to make and what price to sell them for. “The mathematics is required to get precise predictions about the outcome in these markets,” he says.

Hogg’s work even carries over into physics and astronomy. Substitute planets for consumers, and you can use similar math models to compute planet formation. Says Ed Thommes, a research associate in the Department of Physics: “In a way, the planets are simpler. Although they exhibit complex behaviour, at the end of the day, they’re just interacting by straightforward gravity. Planets don’t have social networks, political opinions or favourite colours.”

Hogg says earlier research showed that there are two kinds of people when it comes to product adoption. Early adopters are always on the lookout for the new gizmo or idea. But they make up only about two per cent of consumers. Most of us are imitators, including Hogg, who says he likes to weigh options and consult consumer guides and other resources before buying.

That’s a clue to another important factor in persuading consumers to buy green. The more information shared with people, the better. “People don’t know the benefits of purchasing a hybrid car,” he says.

What does he drive? “I take the bus,” answers Hogg, who also sought out energy-efficient appliances for his home in south Guelph.

He says an emphasis on applied math is what kept him at Guelph for his graduate degree.

Using numbers to help solve biology problems is the goal of researchers in the department’s biomathematics and biostatistics working group. The group’s seminar speakers have discussed such topics as pollutant dispersal, bacterial communities, brain function, disease spread and prey-predator relationships.