Green Consumers and the Recession: Is It Really Different This Time?

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How have consumers’ green shopping habits changed during these tough economic times? There are at least a couple schools of thought: one, that green consumerism has gotten steamrolled by the recession, viewed as a luxury no longer affordable; the other, that green shopping has endured as consumers go back to basics, rethinking the need to consume, redefining what it means to be fulfilled, and becoming less wasteful and more conscious of the impact of their purchases.

So, which is it? Is a green shopping ethic alive and well, or has "saving the earth" taken a backseat to "saving the day"?

In search of answers, I recently tracked down Kathy Sheehan, senior vice president, and Tim Kenyon, senior market analyst, at GfK Roper. For nearly two decades, GfK (formerly Roper Starch) has been studying green consumer habits. GfK’s principal product is the mostly annual Green Gauge, which it describes as a "long-term syndicated study of consumer attitudes and behaviors towards the environment." Green Gauge was the first, in 1990, to illustrate the "many shades of green consumers" through its market segmentation: True-Blue Greens, Greenback Greens, Basic Browns, and the like.

In advance of our conversation, Sheehan and Kenyon sent me three talking points about today’s consumers, one of which was titled "It’s different this time." It stated that "past recessions had a much greater impact on environmental attitudes and behaviors."

That was where our conversation began.

"When you look at people’s concerns in the U.S., as well as globally, yes, their concerns about the economy have gone up," said Sheehan. "But it hasn’t been at the expense of the awareness and concern about the environment." In fact, she said, "The recession has almost been a catalyst to being green." Sheehan explained that consumers are looking harder at energy- and money-saving measures, for example, taking advantage of rebates and other incentives.

But that’s not the only difference. Another is that premium pricing for green products is a thing of the past, at least for mainstream consumers, says Sheehan. That syncs with the boon in less-expensive "house" brands of groceries, and in the continued profitability of Walmart and other discounters compared to their more midmarket counterparts. Except for a small niche of well-off consumers, people interested in buying green simply won’t tolerate paying extra.

Given this, I asked, does being a green shopper these days extend only to the point that it saves money, such as in buying energy-efficient products? "For a majority of mainstream consumers, and especially given the economic climate that we’re in, I think it does have a lot more to do with the personal benefit," said Kenyon.

That’s understandable. Tough times lead consumers to make tough choices. But here’s where Sheehan’s and Kenyon’s analysis stopped me in my tracks. As Kenyon explained: "What’s interesting is that when you look at and compare some of the attitudes and behaviors in the U.S. to other developed markets, the U.S. is actually more like a developing market in terms of the way they think and behave green."

Say what?

Kenyon elaborated. "What we see in more developed countries is that, yes, there is the idea of having a personal benefit, but there is a greater sense of altruism when you’re behaving green. In the U.S., it has more to do with the personal benefit as opposed to having some sort of general sense that we have to save the planet."

I wanted to be sure I understood. "So, in a developing economy, there’s much more of a personal self-interest involved in making green purchasing choices, and less emphasis on the greater good, and that’s similar to what you’re seeing in the U.S.?

Replied Kenyon, "That’s exactly what we’re saying."

There you have it. American consumers may have more in common with their counterparts in Chad, Chile, and China than one might ever have imagined.

GfK’s latest research also indicates that the recession may be leading Americans to let businesses off the hook in addressing their environmental impacts. In its most recent semiannual "core wave" survey of 4,000 consumers, it found that "being environmentally responsible" ranked last in a list of five qualities of what it means for companies to be "responsible," behind providing good jobs, protecting workers, producing quality products, and charging reasonable prices. In most developed markets, such as Western Europe, "being environmentally responsible" ranks second or third.

Moreover, when asked who should be taking the lead in addressing environmental problems, business again ranked last, with only 32% of Americans naming it as their first or second choice of who should be responsible, behind the federal government (46%) and individuals (39%). Says Kenyon: "It’s no longer this idea of going green at the expense of some other issues."

None of this exactly shocked me — though the fact that personal responsibility trumps business responsibility seems noteworthy — and it’s generally consistent both with my unscientific observations as well as the hardcore survey research done by my colleagues as part of’s recently launched Green Confidence Index, which found a similar distrust for companies and a growing reliance on government for solutions, but still showed that green hasn’t gone away during the recession, having become embedded in the marketplace.

So, is it really different this time? Not so much. In fact, I’m amazed how American attitudes toward green shopping aren’t that different than they were nearly twenty Earth Days ago. As was true in the early 1990s, people today tell pollsters overwhelmingly that they want to be part of the solution, but that they won’t budge much more than an inch to do so.

As I’ve been saying lately on the stump: When it comes to "change," Americans love the noun, hate the verb.

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