Green Consumers and the Recession: Is It Really Different This Time?

Two steps forward 2 Joel Makower discusses how green consumer behavior has changed since the recession began with GfK Roper.  The conversation revolved around how the recession hasn't been so bad for green consumerism, mostly because many consumers are looking for ways to save money through energy efficiency and other measures.  In addition, green products are not always the most expensive ones on the shelf anymore.

Posted Nov. 9, 2009
By Joel Makower, Two Steps Forward

How have consumers' green shopping habits changed during these tough
economic times? There are at least a couple schools of thought: one,
that green consumerism has gotten steamrolled by the recession, viewed
as a luxury no longer affordable; the other, that green shopping has
endured as consumers go back to basics, rethinking the need to consume,
redefining what it means to be fulfilled, and becoming less wasteful
and more conscious of the impact of their purchases.

So, which is it? Is a green shopping ethic alive and well, or has "saving the earth" taken a backseat to "saving the day"?

In
search of answers, I recently tracked down Kathy Sheehan, senior vice
president, and Tim Kenyon, senior market analyst, at GfK Roper. For
nearly two decades, GfK (formerly Roper Starch) has been studying green
consumer habits. GfK's principal product is the mostly annual Green Gauge,
which it describes as a "long-term syndicated study of consumer
attitudes and behaviors towards the environment." Green Gauge was the
first, in 1990, to illustrate the "many shades of green consumers"
through its market segmentation: True-Blue Greens, Greenback Greens,
Basic Browns, and the like.

In advance of our conversation, Sheehan and Kenyon sent me three
talking points about today's consumers, one of which was titled "It's
different this time." It stated that "past recessions had a much
greater impact on environmental attitudes and behaviors."

That was where our conversation began.

"When you look at people's concerns in the U.S., as well as
globally, yes, their concerns about the economy have gone up," said
Sheehan. "But it hasn't been at the expense of the awareness and
concern about the environment." In fact, she said, "The recession has
almost been a catalyst to being green." Sheehan explained that
consumers are looking harder at energy- and money-saving measures, for
example, taking advantage of rebates and other incentives.

But that's not the only difference. Another is that premium pricing
for green products is a thing of the past, at least for mainstream
consumers, says Sheehan. That syncs with the boon in less-expensive
"house" brands of groceries, and in the continued profitability of
Walmart and other discounters compared to their more midmarket
counterparts. Except for a small niche of well-off consumers, people
interested in buying green simply won't tolerate paying extra.

Given this, I asked, does being a green shopper these days extend
only to the point that it saves money, such as in buying
energy-efficient products? "For a majority of mainstream consumers, and
especially given the economic climate that we're in, I think it does
have a lot more to do with the personal benefit," said Kenyon.

That's understandable. Tough times lead consumers to make tough
choices. But here's where Sheehan's and Kenyon's analysis stopped me in
my tracks. As Kenyon explained: "What's interesting is that when you
look at and compare some of the attitudes and behaviors in the U.S. to
other developed markets, the U.S. is actually more like a developing
market in terms of the way they think and behave green."

Say what?

Kenyon elaborated. "What we see in more developed countries is that,
yes, there is the idea of having a personal benefit, but there is a
greater sense of altruism when you're behaving green. In the U.S., it
has more to do with the personal benefit as opposed to having some sort
of general sense that we have to save the planet."

I wanted to be sure I understood. "So, in a developing economy,
there's much more of a personal self-interest involved in making green
purchasing choices, and less emphasis on the greater good, and that's
similar to what you're seeing in the U.S.?

Replied Kenyon, "That's exactly what we're saying."

There you have it. American consumers may have more in common with
their counterparts in Chad, Chile, and China than one might ever have
imagined.

GfK's latest research also indicates that the recession may be
leading Americans to let businesses off the hook in addressing their
environmental impacts. In its most recent semiannual "core wave" survey
of 4,000 consumers, it found that "being environmentally responsible"
ranked last in a list of five qualities of what it means for companies
to be "responsible," behind providing good jobs, protecting workers,
producing quality products, and charging reasonable prices. In most
developed markets, such as Western Europe, "being environmentally
responsible" ranks second or third.

Moreover, when asked who should be taking the lead in addressing
environmental problems, business again ranked last, with only 32% of
Americans naming it as their first or second choice of who should be
responsible, behind the federal government (46%) and individuals (39%).
Says Kenyon: "It's no longer this idea of going green at the expense of
some other issues."

None of this exactly shocked me — though the fact that personal
responsibility trumps business responsibility seems noteworthy — and
it's generally consistent both with my unscientific observations as
well as the hardcore survey research done by my colleagues as part of
GreenBiz.com's recently launched Green Confidence Index,
which found a similar distrust for companies and a growing reliance on
government for solutions, but still showed that green hasn't gone away
during the recession, having become embedded in the marketplace.

So, is it really different this time? Not so much. In fact, I'm
amazed how American attitudes toward green shopping aren't that
different than they were nearly twenty Earth Days ago. As was true in
the early 1990s, people today tell pollsters overwhelmingly that they
want to be part of the solution, but that they won't budge much more
than an inch to do so.

As I've been saying lately on the stump: When it comes to "change," Americans love the noun, hate the verb.

Joel is co-founder and executive editor of Greener World Media, Inc., which produces GreenBiz.com and its sister sites, ClimateBiz.com, GreenerBuildings.com, GreenerDesign.com, and GreenerComputing.com. Joel is also the principal author of the annual State of Green Business report and the Greener by Design conference, both produced by Greener World Media.

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