Earth Day and the polling of America 2012

The annual spring bloom of consumer polls and surveys is upon us, another colorful bumper crop telling us what Americans think about environmental issues, green shopping and the like. The surveys appear each year in the run-up to Earth Day. For whatever reason, pollsters and market-research firms seem to believe that interest in the topic wanes the other 11 months of the year.

I’ve just finished wading through the latest harvest, as has been my custom for several years (see 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011). It’s a mind-numbing task to comb through 100-odd pages of research data and commentary from a dozen or so different sources -- and those are just the executive summaries! But someone’s got to do it.

I’ll forego some of the lighter-weight stuff -- that 6.1 percent of Americans say they are willing to reduce their use of toilet paper, according to a survey conducted by TNS global on behalf of Nitro -- as well as all the findings about Americans’ attitudes on global warming, fracking and that old chestnut, the energy-versus-environment tradeoff. Instead, I’ll focus on the bread-and-butter marketing stuff: consumers’ attitudes toward green purchases and habits.

Herewith are four takeaways I’ve gleaned from the exercise.

1. Consumers’ desire remains strong, but their willingness remains weak
We’ve been seeing this consistently for years: Large majorities of U.S. consumers say they are willing to buy products and engage in personal habits that support a green-minded lifestyle. The Shelton Group’s Eco Pulse study, for example, found that fully 90 percent of Americans claim to have bought a green product. That’s possible, if you consider anyone who at any time purchased an energy-efficient light bulb, Energy Star computer or appliance, or anything with the word “recycled” in it. You don’t need to be a market research pro to know that 90 percent of Americans are not actively engaged in green shopping on a daily or weekly basis. Far from it.

"What we’re seeing is that Americans have largely tried a green product or two, but they’re not sticking with it," says Suzanne Shelton, president and CEO of the Shelton Group. "Sometimes it’s because of perceived performance problems, sometimes it’s price, sometimes it’s other reasons. Bottom line: Most manufacturers and their ad agencies aren’t engaging consumers in true behavior change, nor are they building brand loyalty for their green products."

Shelton remains bullish on consumers’ willingness to seek out and buy green products, though not everyone agrees. "While U.S. consumers may think and talk green, they do not necessarily back up these sentiments by putting their money where their mouths are," concluded GfK MRI in its latest Survey of the American Consumer.

GfK found that while 65 percent of American adults agree with the statement "preserving the environment is very important," only 31 percent of adults purchased environmentally friendly household products in the previous 12 months. That's a far cry from 90 percent. The top three green products purchased by U.S. adults were light bulbs (18 percent), paper towels (12 percent) and laundry detergent (11 percent).

Other polls reveal that Americans are willing to do a few simple things. Harris Interactive found that majorities are turning off lights, televisions or other appliances when not in use (82 percent); replacing incandescent bulbs with fluorescent ones (58 percent); looking for Energy Star labels when replacing appliances (55 percent); and using low-watt bulbs (54 percent).