What Consumers Really Think of Green PR

Jon Greer, a media and PR analyst, summarizes some of the key findings from the Shelton Group's annual green consumer research.  The study shows that consumers prefer "energy efficiency" to both "conservation" and "green" because it's clear and less suspect of greenwashing.


Posted 10.28.2008 on BNET

by Jon Greer


Here’s a quiz: which of the following environmental terms resonates most strongly with consumers:

a ) Conservation

b) Green

c) Energy Efficiency

d) Sustainable

If you answered “b) Green” — you’re wrong! The answer is c) Energy Efficiency. That’s according to Suzanne Shelton of Shelton Group who conducts annual surveys of consumer attitudes toward environmental issues. Shelton’s research indicates that only 61.5% of consumers have a positive association with the word “green,” 63.5 percent feel positively about “sustainable,” 74% feel positively about “conservation” and a whopping 88.2% feel positively about “energy efficiency.”


Why? Because it’s a term they can understand. “Energy efficiency” means turning off the lights, lowering the thermostat, buying a hybrid car, and so on — things consumers can actually do. But what does “green” mean? It can be all things to all people, Shelton says, and consumers already see through the hype — that “green” is mostly a marketing buzzword designed to boost sales.


Other excellent tidbits from Shelton’s top-rate presentation at the PRSA International Conference in Detroit:

  • Consumers are “armchair environmentalists” — they can see lots of things other people should do, but don’t want to do much themselves, unless it’s easy and saves them money
  • People don’t know what the right things to do are — there’s an unmet need for a credible third-party to certify products and services that are good for the environment
  • Consumers currently associate “energy efficient” and “green” with “more expensive”
  • The economy is definitely having an effect: in 2007, consumers said that the first thing they would do if they had an extra $10,000 to put into their homes would be to replace flooring and countertops; in 2008, it was replace windows and upgrade their heating and cooling systems to save energy
  • Most consumers know enough about sustainability and environmentally friendly products and services to “get through a cocktail party,” but that’s about all


And here’s the kicker of kickers: do you know what is the largest source of greenhouse gases? It’s not personal cars and trucks or even all of the transportation sector — it’s coal-burning electricity generation. That’s right — the whole push to do things virtually and plugging in is actually worse for the environment, as a whole, than getting in our cars or taking an airplane.

No Responses to “What Consumers Really Think of Green PR”

  1. This is a very useful piece of research. It validates what we are building at Green by Design, a website that gives consumers independent information about how green products really are. Greenwashing, green fog, and green noise run the risk of negating the good products on the market. Thank you Jon Greer and Suzanne Shelton for sharing your insights.
    Martha Danly http://greenbydesign.com

  2. Jon, I really liked your post, with the exception of this comment at the end: “That’s right — the whole push to do things virtually and plugging in is actually worse for the environment, as a whole, than getting in our cars or taking an airplane.”
    I think that comment is a leap for several reasons. (1) You’re assuming that people are using non-renewable energy sources. (2) Maintaining two offices – a home based office and a “real” office is a waste of resources. Telecommuting is still a huge resource saver – no heating, cooling, running electric to two places. (3) The cars/planes argument ignores other negative impacts such as traffic, air pollution, road infrastructure upkeep cost, etc.

  3. great post and great comment. could not agree more with lynn’s comment. energy consumption from PCs and the “push to move digital” can’t be compared to the consumption of heating/cooling/lighting office buildings. in NYC that is 88% of the city’s carbon footprint. #2. 1/3 of the US emissions are transport based. changing our modes of transit will have a significant impact.

  4. Nils Klinkenberg, MSLS November 24, 2008 at 12:51 pm

    “…the whole push to do things virtually and plugging in is actually worse for the environment, as a whole, than getting in our cars or taking an airplane.”
    I take exception with this last sentence of the post for two slightly different reasons than the previous commenters:
    1. While the statistics indicate that the total GHG impact of electricity generation is larger than that of the transportation sector, this does not necessarily mean that the resulting increase in electricity-related emissions from “plugging-in” initiatives is greater than the decrease in emissions from the decrease in transportation. Electricity may release more GHGs overall, but that’s not really the point here – a switch from a liquid-fuel mode of transport to something powered by electricity (an electric car or train, or a videoconference) might still result in a net emissions reduction. If this is the case for the average of all such initiatives, the “whole push to do things virtually” is in fact better for the environment, not worse.
    2. Beyond this, however, lies a second issue: the last paragraph of the post considers current environmental impacts, but not the future possibilities of either electrification or liquid-fuels. From a strategic perspective, it might make more sense to switch to electricity-powered transport — even if this resulted in higher emissions in the short term — if this laid the groundwork towards a more-sustainable future society, since the large-scale possibilities for renewable/sustainable electricity seem a lot more promising than those for sustainable biofuels.
    Fascinating market-research results, though — thanks for sharing them!

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