Ever since the resurgence of environmentalism in 1990, consumer polls have attempted to measure awareness, attitudes and behaviors towards environmental issues and products. Poll after poll has found that consumers claim to be concerned about the issues, they report high levels of green product purchase, and even claim willingness to pay a premium for greener products and packages. But empirical evidence doesn’t seem to jibe with the research.
In some markets, green products barely eke out a 3 percent share, in contrast to the near majorities of consumers who express to pollsters interest in all things green. And despite consumer pronouncements otherwise, premium-priced green brands often gather dust on shelves. What can explain the gap between the polls and actual in-market performance? Are consumers lying to pollsters in an attempt to look virtuous? Is the spirit willing but the pocketbook weak? Or is it possible that we ourselves need to change the way we view the green consumer market — and ask different questions? I suspect the latter.
What is “green” — exactly?
One of the biggest challenges in defining “green,” whether it be consumers, products or ads, is that “green,” like the planet itself, encompasses everything — air, water, biological life, chemicals, energy, you name it. When it comes to zeroing in on “green” products, what constitutes “green” can run the entire gamut of one or more attributes spanning a product’s lifecycle starting with raw materials (“sustainably harvested”, “organic” and “recycled”), right through to disposal (“compostable”, “recyclable”) — and everything in between.
And most consumers can be said to be “green” in some way. For instance, NMI’s 2011 US LOHAS Consumers Trends poll found that 83 percent — an overwhelming majority of consumers — said they identified with green at some level. (Who wouldn’t be for green?). So when majorities of consumers say they are concerned about environmental issues and express interest in buying green products and recycling their newspapers and bottles, chances are they are telling the truth.
Consumers may think they are actually greener than we give them credit for
Is it possible that polls may overstate green consumer purchasing and behavior because consumers think that some of the conventional products they buy are actually green? Consider the language on the back of bottle of Tide. Every bottle of Tide, and many other big laundry detergent brands, too, now carries a recycling label and these messages: “Bottle made from 25% or more post-consumer plastic,” “Contains no phosphates,” “Ingredients include biodegradable surfactants (anionic and nonionic) and enzymes.” This all sounds pretty green to me!
Even without such language, is it possible that consumers may believe that trusted brands from reputable companies are “green” — or that the government is watching out? Do greener products need to scream green via eco-logos and images of planets, babies and daisies to merit a check mark in the “green” column? Consider, too, that white vinegar and baking soda have long been touted as green cleaning aids but don’t sport eco-logos of any stripe.