Today marks the launch of a new monthly index, the Green Confidence Index, aimed at tracking Americans' attitudes about and confidence in their leaders and institutions, nationally and locally, on the subject of environmental responsibility, as well as in their own understanding of issues and their willingness to make green purchasing choices. It is the first comprehensive monthly tracking of consumers' green attitudes and purchasing.

The Index was produced by my colleagues at GreenBiz.com in partnership with a leading market research firm, Earthsense, and a leading polling firm, Survey Sampling International. It is based on a monthly survey of more than 2,500 adults who are nationally representative of the U.S. adult online population and calculated using responses in three areas:

Responsibility -- how well various groups and institutions are addressing environmental issues: too much, enough, or too little. The groups include the U.S. government, state and local governments, major corporations, individuals' own employers, their neighbors, and themselves (weight: 40 percent);
Information -- whether respondents feel they have sufficient information about environmental issues and solutions to make informed decisions when purchasing consumables (groceries, personal care, apparel, household care, office supplies) and "big ticket" items (household appliances, electronics, and cars), as well as when voting and investing (20 percent).
Purchasing -- green purchases made over the past year as well as anticipated green purchases over the next 12 months for three broad product categories, including food, personal and household care items, and "big ticket" items, including home purchasing and renovation as well as purchases of vehicles and major appliances (40 percent).

Why a new index? Americans' attitudes about how they view environmental problems and solutions are complex, dynamic, and continually shifting, a reality not always acknowledged by the studies and polls that flood my in-box. For years, periodic surveys have managed to capture snapshots of those attitudes, but they're just that: occasional snapshots. By surveying monthly, we believe the Green Confidence Index will illuminate real-time shifts and nuances that the annual or occasional studies can't see.

The Index was set in July 2009 at 100.0. Today’s release includes results from the first three months of survey results, through September 2009, when the composite Index stood at 103.8.

You can download the inaugural issue free (PDF). Future issues will be available to paid subscribers.

Here is some of what we found:

Responsibility perceptions are highest among individuals' perceptions of themselves -- half feel they are personally "doing enough," with their employers not far behind. Perceptions of major companies and manufacturers lag the list consistently, with only 22.7 percent of respondents seeing companies as doing their share; this was the one significant change since the July baseline.
Information is seen as being more readily available for energy-guzzling products such as vehicles (58.7 percent) and household appliances (56.6 percent). For half the categories GCI tracks, a modest -- but significant -- upward shift was evident (apparel, household care products, household appliances, electronics, automotive). Only 3 in 10 investors (28.0 percent) feel enough information is available about environmental issues when they make investment decisions.
Purchasing of green products is holding steady. In past year, half of all U.S. adults say they bought at least one green product; nearly one-quarter (22.2 percent) said they are maintaining the same level of purchasing; and nearly as many (19.0 percent) said they've increased the number of green products purchased. Premium pricing is the biggest deterrent, usually because consumers cannot justify paying more (41.0 percent), compounded by the impact of the economic downturn on their paycheck (19.3 percent).

Moreover, we found considerable pent-up demand, particularly as green premiums diminish and paychecks regain their health. More than three in five who haven't purchased green say they are considering doing so in the coming year. Of the 52.0 percent who say they've never bought a green food product, more than twice as many say they plan to buy green (36.8 percent) in the future than don't (15.2 percent).

In addition to these three principal buckets of information, we will be asking other questions on a regular basis. For example, each month, GCI asks "What company, if any, do you think of as being 'green'?" It's an unaided question, meaning no list is provided. Respondents simply name companies that are top of mind.

The answer: Clorox and Walmart were named far more than all other companies, followed by (alphabetically) General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, SC Johnson, Toyota, and Whole Foods. Some smaller firms like Seventh Generation and Method also made the Top 20 list.

Another question asked what sources of environmental information Americans use and trust. The bad news for companies: Corporate websites and blogs ranked last in a list of 13 media types in terms of their use and trust. Word of mouth was seen to be potent: Friends, family, and colleagues ranked highest as the most used and trusted, followed by consumer ratings and reviews. Green blogs and websites had the biggest trust-use gap: they are a trusted information resource, though their usage lags.

I'm looking forward to watching the Green Confidence Index over the months and years, as we track this complex and changing landscape. I'm guessing it will provide a reality check for green optimists and pessimists alike: tracking the mood of Americans while shining a light on the faith they put in business, government, and other institutions to address our environmental challenges -- and how, and how well, those institutions are perceived to be doing their jobs.