Earth Day, Green Marketing, and the Polling of America, 2008

Joel_makower_jpegsGreen marketing blogger Joel Makower sifted through the many surveys that have come in around Earth Day this year in order to present the most telling nuggets of information.  Consumers are responding to green marketing and sustainability is getting more attention on the blogosphere, but my take-away? – Global warming and the environment are still not priorities to most Americans when compared to the economy and healthcare.

Posted April, 20, 2008, Two Steps Forward
By Joel Makower

It’s time for my (second) annual survey of surveys
— the bounty of public opinion polls on green topics that seems to
sprout every spring in time for Earth Day. A half-dozen or so years
ago, there were perhaps a couple such surveys. Today, there are more
than a dozen, ranging from substantive to silly to self-serving.

All told, they paint a portrait that hasn’t changed much over the
past twenty years: The public wants to buy green products and support
good companies. Of course, what this means — and how to define both
"green" and "good" — is where the devil meets the eco-details.

But there’s something slightly different about this year’s bumper
crop of data. A shred of realism seems to be creeping into the mix.
Whereas such polls traditionally were pretty enthusiastic, a few now
acknowledge that the green marketplace is no bed of organic roses,
thanks in large part to consumers’ lack of understanding of key
environmental issues, and their innate distrust of companies’ green

The overly enthusiastic tone of some polls is understandable, once
you scratch the surface. Market researchers proffer tantalizing
sketches of the various eco-minded personalities, hoping to entice
corporate clients to pay the big bucks for more in-depth and customized
data. And then there are the fairly blatant self-serving surveys. A
provider of videoconferencing technologies reports
that a significant number of workers would prefer to participate in an
important meeting by phone or web conference! Well, of course.

So, what did this year’s surveys reveal? Here are highlights:

  • Almost four in 10 Americans are preferentially buying products
    they believe to be environmentally friendly, though almost half (48%)
    erroneously believes such products are beneficial for the planet, as
    opposed to simply being less harmful, according to the 2008 Green Gap Survey
    from Cone LLC and the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship.
    It also found that Americans are pretty open to companies’ green
    messages: 47% trust companies to tell them the truth in environmental
    messaging; 45% believe companies are accurately communicating
    information about their impact on the environment; and 61% say they
    understand the environmental terms companies use in their advertising.

  • Gallup’s annual environment poll
    found that 28% of Americans say they have made "major changes" in their
    lifestyles to protect the environment. Forty percent say they worry "a
    great deal" about "the quality of the environment," ranking far below
    the 60% who worry about the economy and the 58% who worry about the
    availability and affordability of healthcare.

  • Almost 200 million Americans buy green products, reports the market research firm Mintel,
    which also found that the number of new products with an
    environmentally friendly claim has grown substantially over the past
    five years — from five such product launches in 200 to "a staggering"
    328 in 2007. "Price, perceived value and convenience drive these
    purchases as more and more people take on a green lifestyle," the
    company reports. "Thanks to manufacturers’ recent moves, consumers can
    now find more choices of environmentally friendly products than ever
    before." (Mintel doesn’t put these 328 new green products into
    perspective, one of my pet peeves. So I will: There are about 20,000
    new product introductions a year in just the food and beverage
    category.) Another Mintel study reported that "over one-third of adults (36%) claim to ‘regularly’ buy green products," triple the number 16 months ago.

  • Consumer recall of advertising with green messaging is very
    high, with more than a third (37%) of consumers saying they frequently
    recall green messaging and an additional third recalling it
    occasionally (33%), according to Burst Media.
    (Again, some perspective would be helpful here: How does 37% compare
    with overall add ad recall?) One in five (23%) respondents say they
    seldom or never believe green claims made in advertisements. Two-thirds
    (65%) of respondents say they "sometimes" believe green claims made in
    advertisements, and 12% say they "always" believe green advertising
    claims. More than 40% of consumers frequently or occasionally research
    the claims made in green advertisements.

  • Consumers expect to see significant company commitments to environmental leadership before they buy the green marketing hype, according to marketing firm EcoAlign.
    Seventy-seven percent of consumers think that an operational commitment
    to energy efficiency or green energy is the single most important
    quality of a corporation trying to be an environmental leader. When
    respondents asked which of 12 major companies they thought were most
    committed to using or providing renewable energy. GE dominated with
    81%, while Toyota came in second at 65%. However, 54%  of consumers had
    difficulty naming any company that supplied renewable or green energy.
    GE and BP received the most mentions, but only represented 4% to 5% of
    responses. (In reality, neither firm supplies much if any green energy,
    though both manufacture solar panels and GE manufactures wind turbines;
    BP has a tiny renewable energy division, representing less than 1% of
    its total revenue.)

  • One in ten Americans say that they have  looked up their personal or household’s carbon footprint, according to Harris Interactive.
    Younger Americans are more likely to have done so. Almost one in five
    (18%) Echo Boomers (aged 18-31) say they have looked up their carbon
    footprint, compared to 11% of Gen Xers (aged 32-43), 9% of Baby Boomers
    (aged 44-62), and 6% of Matures (63 and older). Regardless of whether
    they are calculating their carbon footprint, Americans claim that they
    are doing things that will reduce it and their carbon emissions. Almost
    two-thirds say they may have reduced the amount of energy they use in
    their home, 43% have purchased more energy-efficient appliances, 27%
    they have started purchasing more locally grown food, and 21% have
    stopped drinking bottled water.

  • Only 3% of consumers "always" buy green products and 66% said
    that they "sometimes" purchase them, according to the Shopper
    Environmental Sentiment survey from corporate real estate giant Jones
    Lang LaSalle. The survey was taken across 34 Jones Lang LaSalle-managed
    shopping malls. Around 40% said that they were willing to "do what it
    takes" to protect and improve the environment, and more than half
    always recycle at home. Almost two thirds of respondents were
    interested in learning more about simple ways to save energy.

It’s a mixed bag of data, to be sure — and more than a little
bewildering. Are consumers really making "major changes" in their
lifestyles and purchases, as Gallup reports? Are individuals’ carbon
footprint numbers on their way to becoming as ubiquitous as cholesterol
numbers, as Harris suggests? Are we making more environmentally
conscious purchase decisions, as Cone and others report? Will four in
ten consumers really "do what it takes" to solve our environmental
problems, as Jones Lang LaSalle found? As I have stated so many other
times (see here, here, here, and here), I’m a tad skeptical.

One thing is clear: The din is growing. A Nielsen BuzzMetrics report, Sustainability through the Eyes and Megaphones of the Blogosphere,
found that the "buzz around sustainability" grew 50% last year. Given
the dozens of new books, TV specials, Earth Day events, and green
advertising campaigns abounding this April — with more of all of these
to come — it’s safe to say that the buzz will continue for a while.

The question, as always, is whether (or when) the frenzy will yield to fatigue.

Joel Makower is the Executive Editor of, and blogs at Two Steps Forward.

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