How can you buy a new car and still appear socially responsible? Make it a hybrid or electric car. The manufacturing strain on the environment is the same, and the energy production strain is worse because the energy density is far less than combustion, but you can appear socially responsible to others.

A paper in Marketing Science shows how companies can leverage that kind of "conspicuous conservation." If a company can attach a green halo to its products then consumers who need for their neighbors to know how environmentally conscious they are will be happy about about paying more for that social value. Using such social comparison preference can provide marketers with valuable insights about how they can enhance the desirability of their products. This has worked to great effect in things like organic food (you'll be a better parent choosing food made with one pesticide over another) and homeopathy / alternative medicine (take our supplement for three days and your cold will get better) so it makes sense for companies market social responsibility. Are you the only person in your circle driving an electric car? Spin that as being progressive and environmentally aware. By the time only one combustion vehicle is left, the lone driver in the social circle will feel isolated and have to buy one also.

The scholars developed a model linking the R&D decisions of firms to the interplay of consumers' social comparison preferences (their need to stack up) and how much they are willing to pay. The analysis shows that social comparison can provide incentive for a company to develop innovations in sustainability when the product category is mature and most consumers are already users of that category. Moving people to a Prius should be relatively easy since most consumers already drive. 

Heightened media attention also helps green products become more socially valuable. For instance, as the media focused more and more on the effect of palm oil production on deforestation, many consumer product companies started producing palm-oil free products.

The paper also cites Levi's Water Less™ jeans and Clorox's Green Works cleaners as examples of innovative products developed to respond to consumers' social preferences. Levi's spent three years developing a process to create denim that requires less water and fewer chemicals to produce, and Clorox spent over $20M to produce "natural" cleaning products. What consumers never learn is that regular cleaning products use the same chemical, they just create it rather than getting it from a natural source. They believe they are cleaning more naturally despite the active ingredient being identical, which is silly as saying honey is better for you than the corn syrup in soda.