Earth Day, Green Marketing, and the Polling of America, 2009

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Here we go again. In the run-up to yet another Earth Day, here is my third annual take on the bounty of polling data on consumer environmental attitudes that seems to hit my in-box this time each year. (See here for the 2007 and 2008 installments.) This year is no different. I’ve counted more than a dozen different surveys, market segmentations, and opinion polls since Barack Obama became president. By my estimation, that’s a record.

I jumped the gun a couple months ago, marveling at how Americans continue to claim their environmental shopping cred, even during horrendous economic climes. ("Why do nearly all of the surveys seem so gushingly optimistic, even during pessimistic times?" I asked. I’m still scratching my head.) But those polls were just the leading edge of the 2009 data wave.

So, what do they all tell us? As usual, a little bit of everything. Consumers are both more willing and less willing to shop green than in previous years. Consumers care more and care less about environmental issues given the economic times. Consumers are willing and not willing to pay more for greener goods. You get the point.

But one thing remains fairly consistent across nearly all of these studies — and most of the ones I’ve reported on in recent years: Vast majorities of consumers say they have adopted greener habits in their daily lives, and shop for at least some products with a keen eye on their environmental provenance and energy and climate impacts. In other words: the marketplace is getting greener — way greener, if you were to believe the numbers.

You may wish to not believe them, based on your own experiences and observations. I certainly have doubts. Either way, here is a taste of what the studies are telling us about American consumers in 2009:

  • Consumers are more aware of green issues and are finding practical ways to be eco-friendly while also saving money in today’s difficult economic times, according to the 2008 GfK Roper Green Gauge study. Nearly three-quarters (72%) of Americans say they know a lot or a fair amount about environmental issues and problems (up 7 points from 2007) and 28% often seek out environmental information (up 5 points). Seventy-six percent have bought energy-efficient light bulbs and 58% have purchased energy-saving appliances. Consumers are purchasing paper products made from recycled papers (72%), green household cleaning products (64%), and environmentally-safe laundry detergent (57%) despite the fact that they cost more. However, those who say the environment is a greater concern than the economy has dropped from 69% in 2007 to 55% in 2008.
  • Nearly seven in ten Americans (67%) agree that "even in tough economic times, it is important to purchase products with social and environmental benefits," and half (51%) say they are "willing to pay more" for them, according to the 2009 BBMG Conscious Consumer Report. BBMG found that 77% of Americans agree that they "can make a positive difference by purchasing products from socially or environmentally responsible companies," and are actively seeking information to verify green claims. On the other hand, nearly one in four U.S. consumers (23%) say they have "no way of knowing" if a product is green or actually does what it claims, signaling a lack of confidence in green marketing, revealing what BBMG called a widespread "green trust gap."
  • The number of Americans who say they almost always or regularly buy green products remains unchanged since last year — at 36%, after tripling the previous year from 12% in 2007 to 36% in 2008, according to Mintel consumer survey data. Cost remains an impediment to the green market’s growth. Mintel found the majority of adults are willing to pay "only a little extra" for green products.
  • More shoppers in North America, Europe, China, and Japan systematically purchased green products in 2008 than in 2007, according to a report by the Boston Consulting Group. In the United States, 16 percent of consumers — one in six — were systematic shoppers for green products in 2008. Some 61 percent said the environment is in a very bad state.
  • Americans currently have a higher skepticism "about mainstream reporting" on climate change than at any other time in the past decade, according to a Gallup poll. As recently as 2006, significantly more Americans thought the news underestimated the seriousness of global warming than said it exaggerated it, 38% vs. 30%. Now, according to Gallup’s 2009 Environment survey, more Americans say the problem is exaggerated rather than underestimated, 41% vs. 28%. Six in 10 Americans indicate that they are highly worried about global warming, including 34% who are worried "a great deal" and 26% "a fair amount." Overall worry is similar to points at the start of the decade, but is down from 66% in 2008 and 65% in 2007.

I’ll be the first to tell you that some of this stuff is hard to report with a straight face. For example, according to Roper:

72% of parents discuss the importance of protecting the environment with their children on a regular basis (up 11 points from 2007). Not only are more American families having the "green talk," they are also emphasizing actionable issues. More are discussing recycling (86%, up 3 points), conserving energy (79%, up 5 points) and conserving water (76%, up 7 points). . . . Additionally, 88% of parents say they teach the importance of protecting the environment to their children by example (up 6 points from 2007).

Call me a cockeyed cynic, but I have a hard time believing that eight in ten parents are teaching their kids about saving energy and water, and that nearly nine in ten preach to them about "protecting the environment." (If it was the other way around — kids teaching parents – I might be more inclined to believe it.)

It’s also hard to find solace in some of the rosier findings — for example, that 82 percent of Americans say they’re still buying green products despite changes in the economy, according to EnviroMedia Social Marketing, or the 2009 Cone Consumer Environmental Survey finding that 34 percent of American consumers indicate they are more likely to buy environmentally responsible products today and another 44 percent indicate their environmental shopping habits have not changed as a result of the economy — when you also learn how utterly confused consumers are about what and who to trust. For example, according to BBMG, Wal-Mart was simultaneously named by consumers as the most and the least environmentally responsible company:

When asked unaided which companies come to mind as the most socially or environmentally responsible companies, 7 percent of Americans named Wal-Mart, followed by Johnson & Johnson (6%), Procter & Gamble (4%), GE (4%), and Whole Foods (3%). Wal-Mart also topped the list of the least responsible companies (9%), along with Exxon Mobil (9%), GM (3%), Ford (3%), Shell (2%) and McDonald’s (2%).

And the kicker:

Interestingly, 41% of Americans could not name a single company that they consider the most socially and environmentally responsible.

Any questions?

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