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Two Steps Forward

Earth Day and the Polling of America 2011

<p>Each spring brings a bumper crop of new surveys and market research on green consumers. Here's what's sprouted this year.</p>

It's become a rite of spring: a bumper crop of data, surveys, polls, and analyses about the green market space. Each year, as Earth Day comes into view, a picture emerges about U.S. consumer attitudes toward green business and green shopping. It's a murky picture at best.

As I have done for the past several years (see 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010), I've waded through the latest tranche of data -- nearly a score of research reports from major agencies (Gallup, Harris, Ogilvy), boutique firms (BBMG, Cone, Shelton) and some lesser-knowns (Mambo Sprouts Marketing, anyone?) -- that has come out over the past several months. It's a tedious, mind-numbing exercise, to be sure. But it's my self-appointed duty.

Here are three conclusions I've harvested from the latest crop.

1. Consumers are taking a harder look at companies, but they're not impressed. The notion of green business is starting to be eclipsed by the larger notion of sustainable or responsible business, which encompasses social and environmental issues, as well as overall ethical behavior.

As they scan the marketplace, consumers seem underwhelmed. According to the Cone Shared Responsibility Study, three-quarters of Americans assign companies a "C," "D," or "F" grade on how well they are engaging consumers around critical social and environmental issues. That's unfortunate, given the steady parade of progress that we report each week on -- major commitments and achievements by big companies -- though little of this makes it into the mainstream media.

Sustainability seems to be growing as a concept, even though not everyone groks the term. According to the Hartman Group, 15 percent more consumers are now aware of the term "sustainability" compared to three years ago (69 percent in 2010 vs. 54 percent in 2007), though only 21 percent can identify a sustainable product and even fewer, 12 percent, can name specific companies as "sustainable."

That's worth repeating: About four out of five consumers can't identify a sustainable product and nearly nine in ten can't name a sustainable company.

All of which points up two big problems: One, "sustainability," for all its use by companies, remains a mystery to many people. And two, companies haven't yet figured out how to tell their stories in compelling and credible ways.

Companies' walk-talk gap remains vast -- but not in the way many consumers think. The reality is that companies are walking far more than they're talking -- that is, doing more than they're saying.

That was evident in the Sense & Sustainability study by the public relations firm Gibbs & Soell. It found that 29 percent of executives believe that a majority of businesses are committed to "going green," compared to only 16 percent of consumers who believe this. Closing that 13-point gap would be a good start, though it would mean that more than two-thirds of the populace still remains unconvinced.

Suffice to say, there's a vast chasm of credibility. Citizens want to be heard by companies and want to hear what companies are doing, but they don't necessarily trust companies on either count. According to Cone, 84 percent of Americans believe their ideas can help companies create products and services that are a win for consumers, business, and society. But only 53 percent feel companies are effectively encouraging them to speak up on corporate social and environmental practices and products. That represents a big opportunity for smart companies to differentiate themselves.

To be sure, it's a risky proposition. Cone found a whopping 92 percent of consumer saying they want companies to tell them what they're doing to improve their products, services and operations. But nearly as many — 87 percent — believe the communication is one-sided -- that is, companies share the positive information about their efforts, but withhold the negative -- and 67 percent say they are confused by the messages companies use to talk about their social and environmental commitments.

The takeaway: Companies must walk a tightrope of credibility. They need to get much better at talking about their sustainability commitments and achievements, as well as listening to customers' ideas and concerns, all the while managing the public's inherent skepticism about companies' authenticity in this arena.

2. Consumers aren't as green as they claim. Talk about a walk-talk gap: Even in a good economy, consumers profess a higher level of interest in environmental shopping and living than they actually demonstrate in their actions. For example, at the beginning of 2011, a survey by Opinion Research for the paper company Marcal revealed that 80 percent of Americans planned to be greener this year. That's typical of consumers' irrational exuberance of green shopping, as I've noted in the past.

Research by the Natural Marketing Institute, which tracks the so-called LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) market space, found that four out of five of the consumer segmentations it tracks are "much more involved in the sustainability marketplace and lifestyle than they used to be," as NMI's Gwynne Rogers told me earlier this year. Only one segment, the "Unconcerneds," representing 17 percent of the marketplace, are holdouts.

The high numbers from some research firms belie a continued reluctance by consumers to actually shop their talk. (But it doesn't stop hyperbole: NMI's research recently led one green marketing author to tout that "83 percent of consumers ... are some shade of green.")

Consider the countervailing evidence. Brand Sustainable Futures, a report by Havas Media and MPG, found that while sustainability remains a key issue for consumers worldwide, only 5 percent of U.S. consumers always consider environmental/social aspects when making purchase decisions, deterred by confusion, lack of clarity and perceived higher prices.

True, you'd expect only a small sliver of consumers to "always" shop green and responsibly. And you might get to 80 percent if you consider anyone who's ever made at least one such purchase -- a less-toxic cleaner, an energy-efficient appliance, an organic food, or a "natural" cosmetic. But there's a vast space in the middle, which is what most of the market segmentations attempt to measure and analyze -- nearly all of which I find wanting.

Research by the polling firms, as opposed to those selling market research services, seem to be more sober:

  • Harris Interactive found a one-year drop in the number of Americans who say they are "going green." U.S. adults "are now less likely to engage in various green behaviors in their daily life," says Harris, including purchasing locally grown produce, locally manufactured products, and organic products; using less water; and composting food and organic waste.
  • Gallup found the widest margin in nearly 30 years in Americans prioritizing economic growth (54 percent) over environmental protection (36 percent). "Americans for the most part have given the environment higher priority since Gallup first asked this question in 1984."

Here are two noteworthy demographic findings I came across:

  • Older men are more skeptical about green marketing, according to the advertising insight firm Crowd Science. People over 55, and men in particular, are almost twice as likely to hold the opinion that shopping for green products makes no difference.
  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender (LGBT) adults are accelerating their personal commitment to environmental issues at a higher rate than their heterosexual counterparts, found Harris Interactive. A majority (55 percent) of LGBT adults, say they "personally care a great deal about the current state and future of the environment," compared to just 33 percent of heterosexual American adults.

The takeaway: There's still a lot of bluster on the part of consumers about their willingness to make good, green choices in the marketplace. The reality comes down to a small handful of products where consumers believe there either is sufficient value proposition (energy savings, health) or acceptable tradeoffs (higher prices, inconvenience). But don't fall for some marketers' everyone-is-going-green hype.

3. Consumers aren't getting any smarter. You'd think that, after all these Earth Days, there'd be a greater consciousness among consumers, and greater confidence about the environmental choices they make. But that just doesn't seem to be happening.

For starters, there's climate change. Public confusion about the climate -- Is it changing? Whose fault is it? What can be done? -- has been well documented. A report by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication found that 63 percent of Americans believe that global warming is happening, "but many do not understand why." The study also found important gaps in knowledge and common misconceptions about climate change and the earth system.

It concluded that many Americans lack some of the knowledge needed for informed decision-making in a democratic society. For example, only 57 percent know that the greenhouse effect refers to gases in the atmosphere that trap heat. Meanwhile, "large majorities incorrectly think that the hole in the ozone layer and aerosol spray cans contribute to global warming, leading many to incorrectly conclude that banning aerosol spray cans or stopping rockets from punching holes in the ozone layer are viable solutions." (Ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons have been banned from aerosols in the U.S. for a third of a century, since 1978.)

The Shelton Group, while tracking attitudes toward energy efficiency, found several data points indicating that "more Americans than in previous years 1) think that they're doing more than they really are, 2) think that they're doing all that they can, or 3) think that they've done enough already. All three of these perceptions are troubling because they increase resistance to taking on the more substantial home improvements that truly reduce energy consumption."

The takeaway: Companies have their work cut out for them getting consumers smarter and more motivated about environmental issues. As it stands now, some consumers are losing interest.

All in all, I like the conclusions of BBMG, which recently released a report on The New Consumer -- its coinage for that portion of the U.S. adult population it describes as "values-aspirational, practical purchasers who are constantly looking to align their actions with their ideals; yet tight budgets and time constraints require them to make practical trade-offs every day." BBMG estimates about a third of Americans fall into this category, but only one in three "strongly agrees that it's important to purchase products with social and environmental benefits, even in a tough economy."

Let's see: one in three of 33 percent equals about 10 percent of the population. That seems a more realistic appraisal of who's really committed to green shopping and lifestyles. By and large, says BBMG, the New Consumer represents U.S. demographics but skews younger, female, and educated. That, too, feels about right.

Says BBMG:

New Consumers are looking for brands that deliver "total value" -- products that work well, last longer, cost less and, hopefully, do some good. They want brands that deliver the "triple value proposition" -- uniting practical benefits (e.g., cost savings, durability and style), social and environmental benefits (e.g., local, fair trade and biodegradable), and tribal benefits (e.g., connecting them to a community of people who share their values and aspirations).

The jury is out as to whether a third of Americans shop with their tribal members in mind. But I'll take it on faith that consumers are seeking something to give them meaning and fulfillment during these tough times.

Problem is, no one's sure exactly what that is.

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