Picture a reusable cloth tote bag. It’s a good bag, a bearer of wholesome groceries and a preventer of plastic waste. And yet this humble tote has a strange power that can threaten some men to the core of their very being. For them, the receptacle is not only dangerously purse-like, it also loudly signifies another attribute that can make some dudes just as squeamish: caring about the environment. Apparently, men who are less than secure in their masculinity believe engaging in green behavior could make them seem unmanly. This may be a deeply silly notion, but it also comes from a deeply rooted stereotype, which could have serious implications for the planet.
Both men and women are likely to categorize eco-friendly acts as feminine, according to a 2016 paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research. “We found a really strong cognitive link between eco-friendliness and femininity,” says Aaron Brough, associate professor of marketing at Utah State University and one of the paper’s authors, in a phone call. Brough’s research, which included about 1,700 participants across a series of studies, found that men “often eschew green choices” in fear of seeming less than masculine. The idea that environmentalism is for women is “very prevalent,” says Brough.
A few years ago, The New York Times interviewed residents of a New York village that had recently banned plastic bags. One man at an A&P supermarket said he was “embarrassed” to carry a reusable tote bag. It’s “mostly women who do it,” he said. Speaking to NPR in 2014, blogger and menswear designer Joshua Katcher said his vegan, environmentally friendly lifestyle was “considered a sign of weakness to other men—like you’ve left the club.” Katcher summed up the problem neatly: “Mainstream masculinity is a roadblock to sustainability.”
Masculinity’s relationship with environmentalism also played out clearly when hybrid and electric cars hit the market, and the caricature of the smug, effeminate Prius driver became a punchline for every red-blooded, gas-guzzling American tough guy on the road. Cars that cut down or cut out fossil fuels were supposedly “girly” and didn’t “connote American masculinity.” When Tesla released its first Roadster, it was explicitly marketed as a rebuke to the otherwise wimpy electric car market. Laying out the dichotomy between masculinity and caring about the planet, the Roadster, wrote The Washington Post, was “more about testosterone than granola.”
We’ve also known for a long time that there’s a kind of green gender gap; as Brough and fellow researcher James E.B. Wilkie wrote in Scientific American last year, “women litter less, recycle more, and leave a smaller carbon footprint” than men. Brough and Wilkie’s team investigated this discrepancy and found that the answer might be, counterintuitively, to inject even more manliness into the equation: affirming the masculinity of insecure guys seemed to make going green less intimidating.
For their 2016 paper, Brough and his fellow researchers led a series of studies, in which they demonstrated that participants associated green products, and signifiers like reusable tote bags with femininity. Regardless of gender, those surveyed were likely to judge others and themselves as more feminine when performing an environmentally friendly act, or purchasing a product marketed as green. Test subjects also saw behaviors that had a negative impact on the environment as more manly.
“And so we started exploring how that stereotype might influence consumer behavior,” says Brough. In one test, a group of men were each given a Walmart gift card. Some received a standard gift card, and others got a pink, flowery card designed to be stereotypically feminine. Each participant was then shown items he could buy with his card in several categories—backpacks, batteries, household goods—and told to choose between ordinary and eco-friendly options.
“Men who had received the pink gift card, and whose masculinity had been threatened,” says Brough, were much less likely to choose the green products than those who had been given the standard gift card. “Our argument,” he says, “was they were doing that as a way to restore their masculine gender identity. So then we said, ‘Alright, this isn’t really great news for the environment.’”
The problem goes beyond environmentalism, according to Michael Kimmel, a masculinity expert and distinguished professor of sociology and gender studies at Stony Brook University. “We have, for a long time, coded selfishness as masculine,” he says. “And I think we men can do better than that.” Kimmel is the director of the university’s Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, which, in 2019, plans to begin offering the first-ever master’s degree in “masculinities studies.”
“When did men in the United States stop thinking that caring for others, responsibility, sacrifice, was no longer manly?” Kimmel asks. “Those are the hallmarks of masculinity since Homer.”
In the U.S., coding of environmentalism as feminine is no accident, says Kimmel, who maintains that it’s part of a longstanding cultural campaign to convince American men that self-concern and individual rights trump any greater good. According to Kimmel, this self-serving perspective only benefits a small, wealthy class of Americans, and those who propagate the environmentalism-is-for-sissies sentiment are doing so to create the appearance of aligned interests between, say, a rich oilfield owner and a working-class guy who still drives an old, gas-guzzling car. The payoff comes when your average American dude believes his own identity to be so wrapped up in extractive industries like petroleum production that buying a hybrid car or supporting renewable energy would leave him unmanned.
Brough’s research didn’t examine how exactly the green-feminine stereotype came to be. And “we weren’t really focused on how to erase the stereotype,” he says. “But given that this stereotype exists, and that it is so prevalent, are there things that can be done to encourage more eco-friendly choices among those who hold that stereotype?”
What would it take to make men feel secure enough to care about the environment? The team reasoned that if threats to an individual’s masculinity created a disinclination toward environmentally friendly behavior, then perhaps making him feel like a big, strong, powerful man would have the opposite effect.
The researchers tested the theory by giving a handwriting test to a group of men, who were told their penmanship would be analyzed to determine how masculine they were. (This was a lie.) After being given false feedback that their handwriting was indeed very manly, subjects were asked to assess some eco-friendly products. And it worked: “They were more comfortable going green after being reassured of their masculinity,” says Brough.
In another experiment, researchers measured men’s willingness to donate to an environmental nonprofit called Friends of Nature. One cohort received the group’s standard brochure; the others got a version with the green logo switched out for “more masculine colors, like black and blue,” says Brough. The content of the pamphlet stayed essentially the same, but researchers muscled up any “feminine”-seeming language and changed the cover image from a tree to a howling wolf. “We called it Wilderness Rangers instead of Friends of Nature,” says Brough. “And men were willing to donate more to the charity.”
Australian writer Ben Pobjie joked that Brough’s research would inspire burly rebranding efforts like an environmental nonprofit called “Pollution Punchers,” or Greenpeace changing its logo to “a picture of a bear carrying the bloodied corpse of an oil executive in its jaws.” But Kimmel says emphatically that “butching it up is not the way” to promote environmental action among men. “I think you have to appeal to a different idea.” Speak to men as protectors, he says, as fathers. “Do you want your children to be drinking water that will make them sick? You’re a dad. Your job is to protect your children and your family. … I think if men thought more as fathers, and less like ‘real men,’ we would do a lot better.” Or, he says, get male consumers to consider the hundreds of billions of dollars that climate change costs the U.S. economy every year.
Changing hearts and minds with powerful appeals might be a winner in the long term, but when it comes to packaging sustainable cereals or designing a nonprofit brochure, “I don’t think it has to be really overt,” says Brough. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be hitting them over the head with masculinity,” he says, but since most green products are bought by, and marketed to, women, “maybe a shift toward gender neutrality” would bring more male consumers in.
Stereotyping environmentalism as unmanly is “so silly,” says Hall Newbegin of Juniper Ridge, whose sustainably produced, wilderness-inspired scents, soaps, and oils are bought by men and women in roughly equal numbers. “That’s a huge amount of men to be buying our stuff,” he says, especially because his company often bills itself as a “perfumer,” making it an even ickier proposition for men who fear the feminine.
As a brand, Juniper Ridge has somehow been recognized as particularly masculine, in an effortless, outdoorsy kind of way, despite the company’s commitment to conservation. Newbegin says he doesn’t spend much time thinking about demographics or coding gendered appeals; he eschews font-color analysis and male-marketing hieroglyphics altogether. “Everyone knows they’re being marketed to.” he says. “We all sense it, and we’re like ‘fuck you.’” Instead his products connect with “the animal senses,” like smell, says Newbegin. “Men respond to realness.”
There is another lesson in Juniper Ridge’s products. For those passionate about rugged outdoor activities like hunting, fishing, hiking, and camping, as well as those still making a living off the land, there is an intuitive bridge between speaking about ecosystems and wildlife and about a love of the natural world. Maybe that’s why some politically conservative environmental groups have made headway among hunters, fishermen, and farmers, who in some way may see the effects of climate change around them every day, but are loath to talk about ocean temperatures or the Paris Climate Accord.
Asked for examples where masculine eco-branding has been done right, Brough mentions Tesla, which he says most people think of as both masculine and environmentally beneficial. There’s also “Don’t Mess With Texas,” the anti-littering campaign slogan that practically became a state motto, adopted by Dallas cowboys and Austin hipsters alike. He also notes that in his research, women didn’t seem to be turned off by masculine branding, making throwing in a dash of testosterone a low-risk experiment for environmentally friendly companies.
The idea of some big, strong man terrified that his friends might catch him with a cloth tote bag might seem kind of funny—maybe men are just too emotional when it comes to gender signifiers, and we should never expect them to logically assess the benefits of environmental progress and the ominous realities of climate change. But Brough stresses that there are real gains to be made by bringing men into the eco-fold. It may be cultural, or it may be a personal problem, says Brough, but in the end, there are just some men out there “who don’t necessarily feel so secure in their gender identity.” And from his point of view, having them “willing to affiliate with a more feminine product or behavior” would be good for everyone.
And hey, if more masculine marketing fails, there’s something else that will likely speak to even the most macho among us: Marketing agency Ogilvy & Mather says that a heartless attitude toward the environment could make you less attractive to potential mates. “Not surprisingly,” the agency writes in a report from its green ad division, men who are adamantly anti-environmentalist “are more likely to be single.”