If hotel firms want patrons to be eco-friendly when they visit, they have to lead by example.

That's the conclusion of a study co-authored by Simon Fraser University assistant professor Brent McFerran published in the Journal of Marketing Research.

Many hotels put out cards asking patrons to be more "green," but they don't always work, McFerran says.

"The burden ends up falling to the consumer to the extent you reuse your towels or use fewer napkins," he told All Points West host Robyn Burns.

"What we were interested in [is] do consumers perceive these requests as making the firm also green, or do they only recognize the profit motive that can underlie these as well?"

McFerran and his co-authors found unless companies put their money where their mouths are, it's usually the latter.

And to prove it, they needed to use toothbrushes.

Experiment used toothbrushes

McFerran and his co-authors conducted an experiment with a higher-price hotel and a lower-price one.

Patrons in both hotels had cards in their rooms asking them to use less electricity; they also had free toothbrushes in their rooms: some were standard, cheap plastic toothbrushes, but others were more eco-friendly and expensive bamboo toothbrushes.

"What we found is the extent to which you perceived the hotel to be green or environmentally friendly was obviously dependent on whether or not the toothbrush was bamboo or plastic," he said.

"That perception drove their actual behaviour: the extent to which you perceived the hotel to be green, [means] you use less power yourself."

"So these empty asks, of a firm asking you to use fewer napkins, meanwhile everything around the firm and their interactions are all very environmentally unfriendly, results in this kind of backlash where consumers use more electricity than if there was no note there in the first place."

McFerran says companies request things of their customers all the time but aren't aware of other "cues" that drive behaviour, and if they want customers to make eco-friendly choices, the hotels themselves need to make eco-friendly choices themselves and make those choices visible.

With files from CBC Radio One's All Points West


To hear the full story, click the audio labelled: Hotels who want customers to go green need to do it themselves too