Earth Day and the Polling of America, 2010: Me First, Planet Later

Of course, one might cite the Great Recession as a key reason why Americans have slowed down (or in the case of Millennials, never sped up) on environmental habits and purchases. Indeed, a recent poll by Ipsos Public Affairs on behalf of Procter & Gamble found that "More adults cite saving money than any other reason why they would take measures to reduce waste, save energy and save water in their home." When asked to select the two most important reasons for taking environmentally-friendly measures, 64 percent of 1,000 adults surveyed selected saving money.

Close to three quarters (74 percent) also report they would switch to a different brand if it did not cost more and helped them reduce waste, save water or save energy in their homes.

Some surveys continue to defy economic realities -- and common sense. According to Mintel's latest report on green living, the environment remains a concern for the majority of Americans. "More than one-third (35 percent) of survey respondents say they would pay more for 'environmentally friendly' products."

That finding is hard to swallow. But it makes at least a lick of sense when one learns that "Food and beverage and personal care are the two most mature categories and account for the majority of green products in the marketplace," according to Mintel senior analyst Chris Haack. Of course: Food and beverage purchases are one place where consumers often "indulge" during tough times. Moreover, there's a reasonable chance their "environmental" concerns in this case take the form of concern over toxic residues they may be feeding their families, not necessarily the groundwater runoff, topsoil depletion, or greenhouse gas emissions associated with getting the food on their plates.

Clearly, green consumerism these days is more about self and family than community and planet. At a time of economic uncertainty, "What's in it for me?" seems to have become the tacit rallying cry of the environmentally concerned shopper. Their appetite for environmental activism has diminished inversely with concern over their incomes, home values, and pensions.

That's okay to a point. To the extent that "me first" prods manufacturers to eliminate price premiums or other trade-offs in designing and marketing products with environmental attributes, that's helpful. Even before the recession, Americans were clear about their lack of desire for trade-offs in buying green. That hasn't changed. For example, a recent survey by Accenture found that six out of 10 consumers in five countries, including the U.S., are more likely to buy a hybrid or electric vehicle "only when it is superior to gasoline-only models in every way." Accenture counsels:

So while automakers are increasingly focused on addressing the demand for greater fuel efficiency and economy they should also address those areas that continue to influence the consumer. "Green" is not enough by itself.

I concur, and have long advocated that to succeed, "green" must equal "better."

But I'm not convinced that even better products will always win in today's shaky economy. I fear that "me first" has become a handy excuse for Americans to push green shopping out of their consciousness.

I can't say my skepticism was buoyed by the findings of a recent study cited by Britain's Guardian newspaper that green shoppers are "less likely to be kind and more likely to steal."

According to the study, published in the latest edition of the journal Psychological Science by Canadian psychologists Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong, people who wear what they call the "halo of green consumerism" are less likely to be kind to others, and more likely to cheat and steal. "Virtuous acts can license subsequent asocial and unethical behaviours," they write.

As the Guardian reported:

The pair found that those in their study who bought green products appeared less willing to share with others a set amount of money than those who bought conventional products. When the green consumers were given the chance to boost their money by cheating on a computer game and then given the opportunity to lie about it -- in other words, steal -- they did, while the conventional consumers did not. Later, in an honour system in which participants were asked to take money from an envelope to pay themselves their spoils, the greens were six times more likely to steal than the conventionals.

For the record, the Guardian notes that the findings have been challenged by others.

Whether or not green consumers actually are lying, conniving thieves is, at best, subject to debate. It may be that Mazar and Zhong simply amplified green shoppers' desire to look out for their own interests first, an attribute that likely doesn't separate them much from the masses.

Whatever the reality, the findings of this year's crop of surveys and polls are implicit if not explicit: Today's consumers -- young and old, idealistic and not -- aren't feeling particularly magnanimous toward Mother Nature. They have their own wants and needs, including the need to be fulfilled in an age of personal and economic sacrifices. Until they feel those needs are met, it's "Me first, planet later."

Joel Makower is Executive Editor of GreenBiz.com.