by: Joel Makower

Despite a surge (though not an invasion) of corporate environmental practices, companies seem to be having trouble convincing American consumers that their environmental commitments and deeds are worth buying into. And despite consumers' apparently overwhelming concerns about climate change and the fate of the earth, they don't seem to be doing a very good job of translating those concerns in the marketplace.

Those are my takeaways from the most recent survey data on green consumer attitudes to hit my in-box. It suggests that while companies are doing a much better job than ever before in integrating environmental thinking into their policies, processes, and products, they've got their work cut out for them in the marketing arena.

The survey, conducted by Mintel International Group, published last fall, was based on responses from 3,000 U.S. consumers. (Titled simply "Green Living – US," it is available online for $4,450. The price of market wisdom isn't cheap.) Mintel tells us that "the green movement is growing" and that "35 million Americans are 'True Greens' who regularly buy green products." It proffers:

With approximately eight out of ten consumers and executives positively aligned towards green thinking, there appears to be a strong case for much more development of green products.

It was perhaps fitting that the executive summary of the report arrived last Friday -- Groundhog Day in the U.S. -- as I've seen similar statements and supporting data regularly for nearly twenty years now. The first such assertion was made in 1989 by the Michael Peters Group, a now-defunct U.K. design firm that collapsed a few years later in the wake of a financially disastrous acquisition. Michael Peters told us, among other things, that 77% of Americans say a company's environmental reputation affects what they buy, and a whopping 89 percent of Americans were concerned about the impact their purchases have on the environment.

Since then, a succession of reports from reputable researchers have come up with similarly rosy figures. Indeed, the numbers haven't changed much despite 18 annual Earth Days, five presidential administrations, and the birth, death, and rebirth of the electric car. A clear majority of Americans has stated consistently that they are ready, willing, and able to buy green products.

But a deeper look into Mintel's findings reveals that Americans are, at best, fickle about buying green. They do so only occasionally, in only a handful of product categories, and inconsistently. "Even among core 'enlightened,' committed consumers remain low," acknowledges Mintel.

According to Mintel's take, the "green marketplace" is estimated "at over $200 billion." Since I didn't pop for the full study, I don't know how these figures were derived. (I assume that for four grand, they break it down somewhat.) Mintel refers, in its executive summary, to "a wide range of green products -- from paper goods to home building supplies" and also mentions cars, natural and organic foods, appliances, and solar energy, so I'm guessing they're all included.

That $200 billion amounts isn't much, when you spread it over the 68% of Mintel respondents who "sometimes buy green products." That 38%, aggregated nationally, represents about 79 million U.S. households, which means these shoppers are spending just under $50 per week on average on green purchases. That's an okay start, but amounts to a mere 6.8% of the annual $43,395 average consumer pruchases per U.S. household, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data for 2004, the most recent available.

Put another way, two-thirds of Americans say they are buying green, but are spending barely more than a nickel per dollar doing so.

Why, in an era of concern over climate change, energy security, childhood asthma, and the fate of polar bears, are consumers still not voting for the environment with their wallets? Why don't consumer purchases match their stated concerns about their communities and their world? Why do they say one thing and do another?

How come we're not shopping our talk?

The failure to adequately answer and address these questions will forever stymie markets for green products and services, despite a thousand magazine cover stories and TV specials trumpeting the greening of Americans and their companies. There's a huge need for research -- not necessarily about how many consumers say they are shopping green, but real-life research about why well-meaning, well-informed, and politically progressive citizens -- including many of us -- don't align our concerns with our purchases.

There's plenty of blame to go around. Most consumers aren't willing to spend time understanding the environmental and social impacts of what they buy, and won't accept (m)any compromises in their purchases in terms of brand loyalty, product attributes, price, and style in the name of "saving the planet." And companies are notoriously poor at telling their stories, relying on yesterday's marketing strategies to address today's issues, sensibilities, and concerns. (If I see one more quote or paraphrase of Kermit's isn't-easy-being-green lyric from his 1972 (!) Muppets song, I'll scream. Haven't we come up with something more compelling in the last 35 years?)

The time is ripe for change. Green marketing -- which had a brief upsurge in the early 1990s, then went underground before resurfacing a few years ago at a fairly low-level but persistent level -- seems to be coming back. Advertisers appear willing to once again step into the green breach, however timidly, and claims of greenwashing by activists seem to be less frequent, and even then, relatively impotent. Could a green-marketing renaissance be coming?

If it is, marketers will need to dramatically improve the state of the art, if they hope to grow markets for energy-efficiency cars and appliances, renewable energy systems, and less-toxic products -- not to mention products of all kinds from companies with good reputations derived from their environmental leadership.

What is needed to take green consumerism to the next level? Who's doing it well? How can companies do it better?

I'd love your thoughts.

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