What’s Behind the Green Consumer Research?

Joel_makower_jpegsThe environmental LEADER wasn’t the only one to notice the conflicting information coming out of recent green consumer research (here).   Joel Makower, the author of the blog Two Steps Forward and a frequent commentator on green marketing, delved deeper into the inadequacies of some of the new research, or at least the inadequacies of how they were presented.

Read his recent post after the jump…

Originally posted on Sept. 16, 2007
by Joel Makower here.

I’ve seen enough research data on Americans’ green buying habits over
nearly twenty years that I’ve become immune to much of it. It’s not
that I think such research is shoddy; it’s just that I’ve found
consumers’ credibility on the issue wanting, as I’ve noted in several . . . previous . . . posts.

Consider: A 1989 survey by the Michael Peters Group, a now-defunct
consulting firm based in New York and London, found 89% of Americans
saying they were concerned about the environmental impact of the
products they purchased; fully 78% said they were willing to pay as
much as 5% more for a product packaged with recyclable or biodegradable

Of course, we know well that only a fraction of Americans buy green
products — or, at least, buy more than a few such products on a
regular basis.

(I’m leaving organic and other food items out of this equation for
the moment. While much of these purchases certainly qualify as "green,"
the motivations behind them have more to do with personal health and
well-being than with planetary considerations.)

In the eighteen years since Michael Peters, a succession of surveys
have yielded similar stats, numbers that show up frequently in
conference presentations and business plans. After all, if you were
selling a product or service aimed at a green-minded audience and
wanted to convince investors, business partners, and others that your
greener mousetrap had a robust market, wouldn’t you want to invoke such
optimistic-sounding data from venerable research firms? I would.

Given this context, I couldn’t help but note a press release last month
stating that the "vast majority" — 87% — of American consumers say
they are "seriously concerned about the environment." Moreover, said
the release:

A vast majority of consumers say a company’s
environmental practices are important in making key decisions
including: the products they purchase (79%), the products/services they
recommend to others (77%), where they shop (74%), where they choose to
work (73%), an
d where they invest their money (72%).

These findings came from the 2007 GfK Roper Green Gauge, the latest edition of an (almost) annual survey of Americans’ green-shopping attitudes that began in 1990. As I’ve noted previously,
each year Green Gauge tracks the environmental attitudes and belief
systems of five market segmentations of American consumers. I’ve been
watching Green Gauge results since they began and find them an
interesting, and sobering, look at Americans’ green Zeitgeist.

Given Roper’s findings — nearly nine in ten Americans say they are fretting over the fate of the earth!
— I wanted to learn more. A recent conversation with Katherine
Sheehan, senior vice president at GfK Roper Consulting, helped me get
to the bottom of it all.

For starters, that 87% figure turns out to be misleading — the
overly enthusiastic hyperbole of a press release writer, I’m guessing.
Turns out that only 41% of Americans say that their concern for the
environment is "very serious and should be a priority for everyone."
Another 41% said that their concern about the environment is "somewhat
serious, but there are other more important issues that we need to

Add those up and you get the 87% who are "seriously concerned about
the environment," as the press release put it. "I think that’s a little
bit misleading," concedes Sheehan.

Enough about that. Other parts of Green Gauge were more
enlightening. For example: Company websites, brochures, and annual
reports are the last place consumers look to for information on company
environmental practices, Roper found. The biggest sources of
information are traditional media and word of mouth: TV programs (59%),
newspaper articles (49%), online articles (39%), and friends, family,
and "other people you know" (34%). Environmental organizations ranked
sixth (25%), blogs eighth (18%), followed by government agencies,
business magazines, community groups, and — finally — corporate

The one exception are product labels, which seem to have a fairly
high level of credibility. "We see that people tend to really believe
product labels and product labeling," says Sheehan. "So, if something
says it’s biodegradable, the consumer has a level of trust with that

Still, it’s evident that companies have a lot of work to do to gain
cred among consumers when it comes to the environment. Some of that
likely has to do with the impenetrable nature of most company websites
and annual reports, and the feel-good nature of much of their other
environmental communications. Even the most committed consumers would
have problems wading through some companies’ output, let alone
assessing what it all really means.

As a rule, green products still seem an afterthought for most
consumers. Roper found that 28% percent of consumers have purchased a
product in the past two months "because the advertising or label said
the product was environmentally safe or biodegradable." (That seems to
counter Roper’s finding that nearly eight in ten consumers think that
companies’ environmental practices are important in the products they

So, what’s keeping consumers from doing more? Greener products are
"too expensive," say 74% of consumers, while 61% say they don’t work as
well. Fifty-five percent believe that "many ‘environmentally safe’
products are not better for the environment." (So much for believing
product labels.)

Such findings worry me. They sound much like consumer responses did
a decade or more ago. True, some things have changed in that time: the
aforementioned growth of organic, natural, and locally sourced foods;
the availability of renewable power and green energy from local
utilities; the advent of hybrid-electric vehicles; and the growth of
energy-efficient technologies in many consumer products, including
computer equipment. And then there’s the rise of retailers — Wal-Mart,
Home Depot, and others — that are making some greener products more
affordable and available to the masses.

But the pace of change seems unbearably slow, and incremental, and
not widespread. And despite the optimistic findings of Roper and other
firms sussing out Americans’ green buying habits, I’m discouraged and
impatient. What will it take for a critical mass of competitively
priced, widely distributed, and high-quality green products to be
available — enough so that buying them feels the rule, not the
exception? What will it take for green to finally be mainstream?

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