The most significant obstacle to the growth of the green economy involves consumer ignorance. Consumer attitudes on the green market need to be understood in the context of consumer segments. Exaggerated reporting also confounds an accurate portrayal of consumer attitudes on green.
In a recent GreenBiz article, Joel Makower provided his annual review of surveys, polls, and analyses related to the green market. His review of the research suggests that a lack of understanding about climate change is adversely impacting US consumer attitudes toward green business and green shopping.
Despite the plethora of consciousness raising events, the American public is confused about climate change. A report by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication found that while 63 percent of Americans believe that global warming is happening, “many do not understand why.” This study echoed other research that indicates many Americans do not understand the issues surrounding climate change.
Americans have growing misconceptions about their actions. The Shelton Group, found that “more Americans than in previous years 1) think that they’re doing more than they really are, 2) think that they’re doing all that they can, or 3) think that they’ve done enough already. All three of these perceptions are troubling because they increase resistance to taking on the more substantial home improvements that truly reduce energy consumption.”
Research by the polling firm Harris Interactive found a one-year drop in the number of Americans who say they are “going green.” American adults, “are now less likely to engage in various green behaviors in their daily life,” says Harris, including purchasing locally grown produce, locally manufactured products, and organic products; using less water; and composting food and organic waste.
American consumers are unimpressed, according to the Cone Shared Responsibility Study, 75 percent of American companies get a grade of “C” or worse when it comes to how well they are engaging consumers around critical social and environmental issues.
On a brighter note, the public’s awareness of sustainability is growing. According to the Hartman Group, 15 percent more consumers are now aware of the term “sustainability” compared to three years ago (69 percent in 2010 vs. 54 percent in 2007). However, with only 21 percent of consumers able to identify a sustainable product and only 12 percent able to name a sustainable company, consumers still do not understand what is meant by sustainability in the marketplace.
While companies are becoming more sustainable, they are not effectively communicating their sustainability efforts to consumers. According to the Sense & Sustainability study by the public relations firm Gibbs & Soell, 29 percent of executives believe that a majority of businesses are committed to “going green,” compared to only 16 percent of consumers.
When considering consumers’ attitudes towards green, it is important to acknowledge that different market segments are going green at different rates. According to the advertising insight firm Crowd Science, men over 55 are almost twice as likely to hold the opinion that shopping for green products makes no difference. Conversely, Harris Interactive research found that lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender (LGBT) adults are increasing their personal commitment to environmental issues faster than their heterosexual counterparts. A majority (55 percent) of LGBT adults say they “personally care a great deal about the current state and future of the environment,” compared to just 33 percent of heterosexual American adults.
Although there are risks, there are also tremendous opportunities for companies who are ready to honestly and clearly engage customers through new media. Consumers want to contribute, but the perception is that the companies do not want to listen. According to Cone, 84 percent of Americans believe their ideas can help companies create products and services. But only 53 percent of consumers feel companies are encouraging them to speak up on corporate social and environmental practices and products. Cone found that 92 percent of consumers say they want companies to tell them what they’re doing to improve their products, services and operations. But 87 percent believe that companies share the positive information about their efforts, but withhold the negative. Many consumers (67 percent) say they are confused by the messages companies use to talk about their social and environmental commitments.
Research by the Natural Marketing Institute, found that four out of five of the consumer segmentations it tracks are “much more involved in the sustainability marketplace and lifestyle than they used to be,” as NMI’s Gwynne Rogers told Makower earlier this year, only one segment, the “Unconcerneds,” representing 17 percent of the marketplace, are holdouts.
When parsing data derived from surveys, it is important to understand that consumers profess a higher level of interest in environmental shopping and living than they actually demonstrate in their actions. For example, at the beginning of 2011, a survey by Opinion Research for the paper company Marcal revealed that 80 percent of Americans planned to be greener in 2011, but as noted by Makower, consumers are more exuberant about green shopping in word then they are in deed. NMI’s research recently led one green marketing author to say that “83 percent of consumers … are some shade of green.” But once again these numbers are a function of exaggerated statements made by consumers that do not match their actual buying behaviour.
More realistic figures come from reports like Brand Sustainable Futures, by Havas Media and MPG. They found that while sustainability remains a key issue for consumers worldwide, only 5 percent of US consumers always consider environmental/social aspects when making purchase decisions. Their research reveals that American consumers are deterred by confusion, lack of clarity and perceived higher prices.
The recession has had an impact on the priorities of Americans. Gallup found the widest margin in nearly 30 years in Americans prioritizing economic growth (54 percent) over environmental protection (36 percent). “Americans for the most part have given the environment higher priority since Gallup first asked this question in 1984.”
A BBMG report on The New Consumer — defined as that portion of the US adult population that are “values-aspirational, practical purchasers who are constantly looking to align their actions with their ideals; yet tight budgets and time constraints require them to make practical trade-offs every day.” BBMG estimates about a third of Americans fall into this category, but only one in three “strongly agrees that it’s important to purchase products with social and environmental benefits, even in a tough economy.” According to these numbers, only about 10 percent of the population consistently make green buying decisions. That seems a more realistic appraisal of who’s really committed to green shopping and lifestyles.
According to BBMG, the New Consumer represents US demographics but skews younger, female, and educated. That, too, feels about right.
BBMG research indicates that New Consumers are looking for brands that deliver “total value” — products that work well, last longer, cost less and, hopefully, do some good. They want brands that deliver the “triple value proposition” — uniting practical benefits (e.g., cost savings, durability and style), social and environmental benefits (e.g., local, fair trade and biodegradable), and tribal benefits (e.g., connecting them to a community of people who share their values and aspirations).
Americans need to be informed about the basics regarding climate change and consumers’ interest in green comes down to the value proposition (energy savings, health) and acceptable tradeoffs (higher prices, inconvenience).
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, enviro-politics and eco-economics. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, a leading sustainable business blog and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find Richard on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.