News Flash: 110% of Consumers Shop Green

Joel_makower_jpegsOriginally posted Jan. 10, 2007
Joel Makower , Two Steps Forward

This just in: pretty much every consumer is concerned about the
environment and is thinking conscientiously about what they buy — how
it’s made, under what conditions, and by whom. All you have to do is
make good, green stuff and they’ll buy it! We’ve reached the tipping
point!

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Sound too good to be true? It is, of course. But you wouldn’t know
it from the marketing studies I’ve been seeing — and the breathless
headlines that result. As they continue to invade my in-box, I find
myself getting increasingly irritated. Can market researchers be
accused of greenwash? I’m beginning to wonder.

Two examples:

  • Approximately 50 percent of U.S. consumers consider at least one
    sustainability factor in selecting consumer packaged goods items and
    choosing where to shop for those products, according to a new survey by Information Resources, Inc.
  • Nearly nine in ten Americans say the words "conscious consumer"
    describe them well and are more likely to buy from companies that
    manufacture energy efficient products, promote health and safety
    benefits, support fair labor and trade practices, and commit to
    environmentally-friendly practices, according to the BBMG Conscious Consumer Report.

    I don’t profess to have studies that refute these, but you don’t
    need to be a social scientist to know that neither of the above
    conclusions is on the money. Half of consumers do not consider
    sustainability when buying packaged goods — everything from cosmetics
    to cleaners,  Rice-a-Roni to razor blades. (Do half your friends and
    family members shop this way?) And to think 90% of us are "conscious
    consumers" when it comes to the planet? C’mon. Half of us aren’t even
    conscious about what we put into our bodies.

    Such studies aren’t new. They have been coming out for years,
    boasting about the high percentage — usually, a significant majority —
    of consumers that say they are integrating environmental and social
    considerations into their purchases. I’ve written about some of these
    in the past (see here, here, and here).

    I don’t mean to suggest that any of these research firms are
    misleading us. I know many of these people, and they are as earnest and
    diligent as the day is long. They ask questions, get answers, and
    crunch the numbers. But common sense — or simply looking around — shows
    us how far reality is from these numbers. Walk the aisles at your local
    supermarket or big-box retailer. How many of the products you see
    reflect sustainability values? How about the companies that make them?
    How about the stores that sell them? How many shoppers are bothering to
    ask such questions?

    Things are changing in ways that make some of these reports more
    sinister than seductive. Over the past six months, the G-word — greenwashing — seems to have risen from the dead to become a vibrant part of the conversation. There’s now a Greenwashing Index, a Greenwash Brigade, greenwash lists, and lots of handwringing. And, of course, the Six Sins of Greenwashing.

    It’s all good. As the number of companies making green claims grows — by the way, has anyone actually measured that growth? — we need vigilant watchdogs, even though there’s far from unanimity about what is, and isn’t, greenwash. (Ad Age’s list
    of 2007’s best and worst is telling — note that GE (via NBC Universal),
    Toyota, and Wal-Mart all showed up on both the good and bad lists.)

    In that light, these green consumer studies seem something of a
    sucker punch. "Come on, jump in. There’s a vast audience waiting to buy
    what you sell. But it better be damn green, and your messaging better
    be pitch perfect in both tone and content. And your company better not
    have any skeletons, or be doing anything environmentally untoward or
    selling other products that don’t seem green."

    We want it both ways. We want companies to do better, to green up
    their products, and to distribute them far and wide. We have high hopes
    and higher expectations. But we lack standards and basic agreement
    about how good things have to be — the products as well as the
    companies that make them.

    How does a company operate in an world of hyped-up market research,
    few norms or standards, and sky-high expectations from consumers and
    activists who monitor their every move?

    I’m not suggesting that we take whatever companies dish out. We need
    to shift products and markets in significantly greener directions. And
    they need to be good-quality, affordable products. Anything less is
    wasting our time and money — both limited resources, one of them
    nonrenewable.

    What do you think? Should we be flaunting studies that don’t jibe
    with societal or market realities, then punish manufacturers that seek
    to tap those markets if they are less than perfect? How do we
    accelerate the growth of the green economy and still maintain high
    standards? How do we encourage companies that are trying, while pushing
    them to aim even higher?

    To what standards should we hold companies? To what standards should we hold ourselves?


  • Joel Makower is executive editor of GreenBiz.com http://www.greenbiz.com/, and writes the blog Two Steps Forward http://makower.typepad.com/joel_makower/, where this article originally appeared. Reprinted with permission.

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