Consumers are skeptical of buying recycled goods. Are they right?

Clothes made from water bottles or straws made from recycled steel sound great, but they sometimes aren't easily sold.
Recycled notebook and metal straw.
A recycled notebook is just as safe, sanitary, and cute as any other. Anete Lusina on Pexels

The United States has a waste problem, and it is no secret. In 2018, the U.S. generated 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste. About 50 percent was sent to landfills. 

Recycling, or collecting materials that would have been thrown away as trash and reprocessing them into new products, helps reduce this amount of waste and prevents further pollution. Consumers can choose to close the recycling loop by purchasing new products made from recycled materials. These days, you can find anything from backpacks and outdoor furniture from old plastic, hosiery and Jenga blocks from discarded fishing nets, or even water bottles and straws from recycled steel. 

However, shoppers often exhibit an attitude-behavior gap (also called the intention-behavior gap) when it comes to sustainable consumption. Even though people generally have a positive attitude about products made from recycled materials, they don’t always go through with the purchase. There are quite a few reasons why activewear made from recycled water bottles or shoes made with recycled cardboard sounds good in theory but miss your shopping cart. 

Consumers have perceived risks that may hinder purchase intention

So, why do consumers, knowingly or unknowingly, skip out on recycled goods? A recent review published in Resources, Conservation, and Recycling found that environmental benefits, perceived risks, and emotions all play a role in positively or negatively influencing consumer acceptance of products made from recycled materials.

For instance, products made from recycled materials can be seen as eco-friendly, which makes them more favorable, says Athanasios Polyportis, review author and postdoctoral researcher in the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering at Delft University of Technology. That green glow of purported environmental benefits and the idea of helping the world also make consumers feel positive emotions like pride. However, perceived functional, contamination, and aesthetic risks may hinder consumer acceptance.

When it comes to electronics made from recycled materials, consumers may worry about their quality and performance compared to non-recycled alternatives. Meanwhile, clothing made from recycled materials arouses sanitary and safety concerns. Some entertain the possibility that those clothes might not be as hygienic and could therefore pose a health risk to them.

Looks also matter. If a customer thinks a recycled product won’t be in line with their self-image, consumers may delay or forego the purchase altogether. In addition, “products made from recycled materials can induce negative emotions such as disgust due to perceived contamination risk, leading to lower purchase intentions,” says Polyportis.

[Related: 5 reasons to hold on to old silica gel packets.]

In general, products made from recycled materials are often viewed as inferior to their conventional alternatives. This goes for other green products like hand sanitizers and detergents as well, says Angela Chang, associate teaching professor of marketing at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business who was not involved in the review. 

Consumers perceive environmentally friendly products to be less effective or less strong than regular products. They even tend to use more of the product to make up for the perceived inferiority, she adds. Although, to be fair, not all green household consumer products are less toxic and/or more degradable than their conventional counterparts as some manufacturers claim.

However, beyond their physical properties, there is a socio-cultural layer to consumers’ hesitation to embrace recycled materials. “With the rise of consumer societies, re-using things that other people have used before has become a culturally devalued practice,” says Daniel Fischer, Senior Global Futures Scientist at the ASU Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory who was not involved in the review. “This is associated to ideals of ‘cleanliness’ as a collective convention that is typically associated with new products.” 

Luckily, most consumer concerns about cleanliness and safety when it comes to recycled products are just concerns—not realities. 

Products made from recycled materials are not necessarily inferior

Just because a product is made from recycled materials doesn’t necessarily mean that its performance or quality is lower than a product made from virgin materials, says Shelie Miller, Jonathan W. Bulkley Collegiate Professor in Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan. 

Any consumer product needs to pass the same safety and quality standards that are in place, regardless of the source of materials. “While it is true that recycled materials usually do not have identical technical properties as their virgin counterparts, they are not inherently inferior,” she adds.

Consumer acceptance of recycled products is likely dependent on the product sector as well, says Miller. Those selling shoes and bags may be able to use recycled content and environmental benefits as a way to attract consumers, while others who sell products with greater performance and safety requirements—say, electronic gadgets—may be better off focusing on ways to reassure consumers of the product’s adherence to quality and safety standards.

[Related: Should we switch from petroleum ink to soy-based ink?]

To improve consumer acceptance, manufacturers can provide longer warranties or certificates of quality that may alleviate the perceived performance risk, says Polyportis. They could also apply different business models like a subscription or rental service that guarantees the high quality or a long product lifespan. Designing a certificate to assure consumers that the product made from recycled materials is clean and not contaminated is also possible, he adds.

Consumers are generally willing to pay more for green products, but not for circular economy products—recycled-content products or those with extended life cycles—due to perceived quality issues. The use of recycled materials is a fairly new phenomenon that consumers have little experience with, that’s why information provision and education can be effective strategies, says Fischer. A 2021 Resources, Conservation and Recycling study shows that consumers are willing to pay more for circular economy products when they are provided with environmental information, especially those that have independent third-party certification for their environmental claims.

So if you’re feeling iffy about buying a recycled product—don’t worry, you’re likely buying the same quality of goods but at a lesser cost to the planet.