News Flash: 110% of Consumers Shop Green!

futurelab default header

This just in: pretty much every consumer is concerned about the environment and is thinking conscientiously about what they buy — how it’s made, under what conditions, and by whom. All you have to do is make good, green stuff and they’ll buy it! We’ve reached the tipping point!

Sound too good to be true? It is, of course. But you wouldn’t know it from the marketing studies I’ve been seeing — and the breathless headlines that result. As they continue to invade my in-box, I find myself getting increasingly irritated. Can market researchers be accused of greenwash? I’m beginning to wonder.

Two examples:

  • Approximately 50 percent of U.S. consumers consider at least one sustainability factor in selecting consumer packaged goods items and choosing where to shop for those products, according to a new survey by Information Resources, Inc.
  • Nearly nine in ten Americans say the words "conscious consumer" describe them well and are more likely to buy from companies that manufacture energy efficient products, promote health and safety benefits, support fair labor and trade practices, and commit to environmentally-friendly practices, according to the BBMG Conscious Consumer Report.

    I don’t profess to have studies that refute these, but you don’t need to be a social scientist to know that neither of these statements is true. Half of consumers do not consider sustainability when buying packaged goods — everything from cosmetics to cleaners, from Rice-a-Roni to razor blades. (Do half your friends and family members shop this way?) And to think 90% of us are "conscious consumers"? C’mon.

    Such studies aren’t new. They have been coming out for years, boasting about the high percentage – usually, a significant majority — of consumers that say they are integrating environmental and social considerations into their purchases. I’ve written about some of these in the past (see here, here, and here).

    I don’t mean to suggest that any of these research firms are misleading us. I know many of them, and they are as earnest and diligent as the day is long. But common sense — not to mention simply looking around — shows us how far we are from these numbers. Take a look around your local supermarket or big-box retailer. How many of the products you see reflect sustainability values? How about the companies that make them? How about the stores that sell them?

    Things are changing in ways that make some of these reports both seductive and sinister. Over the past six months, the G-word — greenwashing — seems to have risen from the dead to become a vibrant part of the conversation. There’s now a Greenwashing Index, a Greenwash Brigade, greenwash lists, and lots of handwringing And, of course, the Six Sins of Greenwashing.

    It’s all good. As the number of companies making green claims grows — by the way, has anyone actually measured that growth? — we need vigilant watchdogs, even though there’s far from unanimity about what is, and isn’t, greenwash. (Ad Age’s list of 2007’s best and worst is telling — I was struck that GE (via NBC Universal), Toyota, and Wal-Mart all showed up on both the good and bad lists.)

    In that light, these studies seem something of a sucker’s punch. "Come on, jump in. There’s a vast audience waiting to buy what you sell. But it better be damn green, and your messaging better be pitch perfect in its tone and content. And your company better not have any skeletons, or be doing anything environmentally evil, or even sending mixed messages — such as selling other products that aren’t yet green.

    We want it both ways. We want companies to do better, to green up their products, and to distribute them far and wide. We have high hopes and expectations. But we lack standards and basic agreement about how good they have to be — the products or the companies that make them.

    How does a company operate in an environment with hyped up market research, few norms or standards, and sky-high expectations from consumers and activists, who are monitoring their every move?

    I’m not suggesting that we take whatever we get. We need to shift products and markets in greener directions. And they need to be good. Anything less is wasting our time and money — both limited resources, one of them nonrenewable.

    What do you think? Should we be flaunting studies that don’t seem to jibe with societal or market realities, then punish companies that rush in to address those markets because they are less than perfect? How do we accelerate the growth of the green economy and still maintain high standards?

    To what standards should we hold companies? To what standards should we hold ourselves?

Original Post: