Masculine branding might be the answer to the eco gender gap. Credit: Ellie Hutchings

Toxic masculinity has reared its ugly head once again. Commentators on the Depp v Heard case have blamed it for the double standards in the trial, seeing Depp’s victory as a reward for the worst kind of abusive, macho-flavoured attitudes.

But it’s not only in the domestic sphere that this brand of poisonous behaviour is having an effect.

There are concerns that it could be hampering efforts to tackle the most pressing problem of our time – climate change.

Market research firm Mintel found that 71% of women make a conscious choice to live more sustainably, compared to only 59% of men, a phenomenon they dubbed the ‘eco gender gap’.

In the past, the gap has been attributed to personality differences between the genders, pointing to the female traits of altruism and empathy. But more recent studies have shown that being green is seen as ‘unmanly’, and this is making men resist eco-friendly behaviour.

It’s not that men don’t care about the environment, it’s just that they want to feel macho.

A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research tested the theory.

Seven experiments involving more than 2,000 participants led the researchers to conclude not only that this stereotype does exist, but also that men’s willingness to engage in environmentally friendly behaviour can be influenced by either threatening or reinforcing their perceived masculinity. In other words, the only way to get a man interested in the environment is by frightening him or flattering him.

In one of the experiments, participants were given a gift card and asked to go shopping, choosing between green and non-green versions of the same product, such as rechargeable or non-rechargeable batteries. There were two versions of the card, one of which was designed to threaten the men’s masculinity because it was pink with a floral design. Men who used the pink card were much more likely to make non-green choices.

Researcher Dr Aaron Brough, an associate professor of marketing at Utah State University, explains, “The problem is that most men don’t want to feel feminine or be judged by others as feminine. So, when a man’s masculinity is threatened, he often tries to reassert his masculinity through environmentally-destructive choices.

“It’s not that men don’t care about the environment, it’s just that they want to feel macho.”

That brings us back to toxic masculinity.

Research has shown that men who conform to masculine social norms are more likely to exhibit risky behaviour. Dr Rebecca Owens says this may further explain men’s reluctance to go green.

Dr Owens is a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Sunderland with a special research interest in evolutionary male psychology. She looks at the environment humans evolved in, studies what adaptive strategies helped us survive, and observes what remnants of those behaviours are visible today.

“I’ve become aware of a movement where people try to ignore sex differences, because they assume that a difference is a deficit, but that’s not the case,” she explains. “That’s not to say that these differences are biologically deterministic – we’re talking about motivations rather than logical decision making.”

some men won’t take up more environmentally friendly habits because it’s a way to show off

Though Dr Owens offers a word of caution in discussing toxic masculinity, she agrees that stereotypes around male behaviour deter men from going green: “Toxic masculinity has become a bit of a buzzword in recent years – people can be toxic, regardless of whether they’re a man or a woman.

“But social rules have really piggybacked on the idea that men have to be strong and stoic and brave, because in the evolutionary environment a lot of their competition was probably in physical fights.

“Part of the reason some men won’t take up more environmentally friendly habits is because it’s a way to show off. There’s risk in ignoring the threat of climate change.”

The disparity in engagement with sustainable living is something that Kate Cox has noticed too. Cox owns The Good Weigh, a zero-waste shop in Nottingham.

“I’ve had the shop three years now, and it was first set up through crowdfunding. I’d say it was about 90% women that helped me set it up in the first place, and the shop is still driven by women now,” she says.

“The men that do come in are usually the partners of female customers that I already have, and they will come in for things like coffee or bread and other bits and bobs they can quickly grab, whereas women come in to do their weekly shop.

“Even on social media it’s usually women who are following, commenting and re-sharing my content.”

But, despite this seeming reluctance, Dr Brough and his colleagues may have discovered how to persuade men to put the planet first.

“We identified two ways to overcome men’s reluctance to engage in eco-friendly behaviour; masculine affirmation and masculine branding,” he explains.

“In one of our studies, men who had been told their writing style was very masculine preferred the green drain cleaner. So, by affirming their masculinity and making them feel secure about their gender identity, these men felt more comfortable going green.

“We also found that using a more masculine branding approach makes men feel more comfortable choosing green products.”

Some brands have already adopted this marketing strategy, like Hardworking Gentlemen, which sells male grooming products made from natural ingredients and sustainable packaging. Their marketing is overwhelmingly masculine, with their website featuring a video of a bearded man with tattoos riding a motorbike with no helmet – very manly.

If we want to encourage more men to get involved in the fight to save our planet, the solution appears to be simple: make men feel manly and they’re sure to go green.

Men are shying away from purchasing eco-friendly products for fear of appearing ‘unmanly’. Image credit: Ellie Hutchings
Kate Cox, who owns a zero waste shop in Nottingham, says the majority of her customers are women. Image credit: Ellie Hutchings