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Two Steps Forward

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).

But there are other things Americans aren’t doing. Less than half have installed a programmable thermostat (37 percent), sealed gaps in floors or walls around pipes or electric wiring (34 percent), installed low-flow faucets (29 percent) or energy-efficient windows (28 percent), or added insulation to an attic, crawl space or exterior windows (27 percent). And just one in 10 U.S. adults (11 percent) have conducted a home energy evaluation or audit. All of these things require some kind of investment, not to mention time and effort. Perhaps ironically, all of these things offer attractive financial paybacks and returns -- far more so than, say, buying eco-friendly laundry detergent.

2. Companies simply are not trustworthy
Consider the 2012 Cone Green Gap Trend Tracker. It found that eight in 10 Americans "don’t believe companies are addressing all of their environmental impacts," and only 44 percent trust companies’ green claims. This skepticism may even affect sales: As many as 77 percent say they would be willing to boycott a company if they thought they were misled.

Note the language here: Companies haven’t addressed "all of their environmental impacts." Clearly, Americans are right -- companies haven’t. But that simplistic all-or-nothing assessment undermines the great strides being taken by hundreds of consumer brands and companies, from Clorox to Chevy. If consumers’ expectations are that companies must do everything right, well, companies are in big trouble.

Indeed, U.S. consumer’s expectations are high, Cone found. Americans expect companies to address the full environmental impact of a product’s lifecycle, from the impacts associated with manufacturing the product (according to 90 percent of consumers), to the product’s use (88 percent), to its disposal (89 percent). And although 69 percent say they “routinely or sometimes” consider the environment when making a purchasing decision, they are influenced most by end-of-life messages -- is it recyclable? -- followed by other factors: 33 percent say they are most influenced by messaging related to the environmental impact of using a product; and 25 percent by messaging related to the environmental impact of manufacturing a product.

Presumably, the deeper dive from these studies -- the part that costs thousands of dollars to access -- explores these concerns on a category-by-category basis. One big question is whether consumers’ concerns correlate to a given product’s actual environmental impacts. That is, concern over the disposal of a spent light bulb is admirable, but that’s hardly that bulb’s biggest impact.

3. Consumers still seem frustrated
You probably could have concluded this simply by reviewing the first two findings above. After all, if consumers say they are willing to make a few easy marketplace choices, but prefer to buy from companies that are doing everything right, and are all over the map in terms of the messages they want to hear, they’ll be left holding a fairly empty reusable shopping bag.

Significant number of consumers say they can’t find what they’re looking for, in part because what they’re looking for is often elusive. According to Ryan Partnership Chicago/Mambo Sprouts Marketing Styling Sustainability, which looked at consumer apparel habits, consumers say they would "increase eco-apparel purchasing if only they could find it.”

The study found that "while price will always be top-of-mind, lack of availability appeared to be a strong limiting factor. About one in three (33 percent) of those who don’t regularly consider sustainability in their apparel purchases said they didn’t buy sustainable because it wasn’t available where they shop, and one in four (28 percent) said they didn’t even know where to purchase eco/sustainable clothing."

I’m fairly certain that most Americans don’t know what "eco/sustainable clothing" even is, given that there’s no generally accepted definition. Is it apparel that is recycled, recyclable, organic, nonanimal tested, Fair Trade, made from materials that are nontoxic, locally made, made in sweatshop-free environments, derived from plant matter or made from recycled soda bottles? Any of those migh qualify for a generic eco-friendly label.

Perhaps ironically, Ryan/Mambo found 44 percent of consumers saying that there aren’t enough options when it comes to green apparel.

Parsing eco-labels is a big source of consumer frustration. According to a survey on environmental packaging by Perception Research Services, "While shoppers continue to notice environmental claims at a high level (roughly half state seeing more of them in the past 6 months, just as in 2010), they are increasingly frustrated by the information provided. Significantly more report there isn’t enough environmental information (26 percent vs. 20 percent), that they are confused by all the different environmental claims (20 percent vs. 12 percent), and that they don’t know which packages are best for the environment (22 percent vs. 17 percent)."

This frustration isn’t likely to ease up any time soon. Cone Communications found that "Consumers are less inclined to do their own homework on the environmental impacts of a company’s products. Instead, 73 percent of consumers want companies to provide more environmental information on the product packaging to help inform their shopping decisions. And the majority of consumers (71 percent) wish companies would do a better job helping them understand the environmental terms they use to talk about their products and services."

You can see the problem here. Consumers want more information from companies, despite the fact that they don’t know which claims and labels to trust, and the fact that they tend not to believe companies in the first place. It's the ingredients for a lose-lose proposition.

4. What we have is a failure to communicate
This conclusion should seem self-evident by now, but there’s more to it. I was fascinated by two findings from The Shelton Group that underscores how much companies and consumers are missing each others.

The first has to do with the word "sustainability," which has come into increasing usage in the world of environmental professionals -- corporate, activist, public sector, and academic. "We’re all throwing it around on the industry side," Shelton told me recently. "We all drink the Kool-Aid and think that everybody talks like we do, and they know what we know. The vast majority of the population has no idea what sustainability means." The most popular definition Shelton hears is Webster’s: something that is durable or long-lasting.

Shelton thinks that represents an opening for companies. "There’s an opportunity for a company to put a stake in the ground and say, 'This is what sustainability means for our company.' That’s the opportunity: Before other people make up a definition, make up your own. Sustainability doesn’t have currency with consumers -- yet. Define it in terms that makes sense to your brand and makes sense to the market and you can leverage it for market-share gain."

I’m a little leery of companies making up their own definitions of sustainability -- after all, the word does mean something -- but Shelton may be on to something: If we’re going to use the S-word, it better well mean something relevant to your company’s products and your relationship with your customers. Otherwise, why bother?

Another interesting finding by Shelton has to do with the relevance of a claim not typically thought of as environmental or sustainable. "We asked respondents to pick two corporate sustainability priorities they would recommend to the CEO of a Fortune 500 manufacturing company, and we found that ‘Commit to using materials made/grown in America’ was by far the most popular initiative among green consumers, chosen by 27 percent." The second most popular initiative was "Eliminate all potentially harmful product content."

Explains Shelton: "Much of the attraction for a made/grown in the U.S.A. message stems from the current unemployment rate and economic climate. It taps into patriotic consumerism, expressing corporate social responsibility by communicating that a company cares about employing Americans." It’s also about safety, she says. Consumers’ distrust of products made in other countries, which might have fewer health inspections, less concern over toxic ingredients, lower quality standards and other factors that could impact the healthfulness or safety of a product.

This doesn’t seem to be an aberration: This is the second year Shelton found a strong interest in American-made products. "I continue to be fascinated with how it’s picked up steam as a sustainability construct," she says.

What to make of all this?
It’s tempting to want to throw up one’s hands, but that’s too easy and not very helpful. It’s tempting to blame consumers as lazy and uninformed, but we’d only be blaming ourselves, since consumers know what they know in large part from the messages companies create.

One inference I draw from all this it’s that in 2012, corporate environmental responsibility has become table stakes, an assumption by consumers that this is how companies should operate. Consumer expectations are high: They want to assume that the products they buy, and the companies they buy from, are responsible, much as they want to assume that the products they buy are healthful, safe, or aren’t made by slave labor. And much like their beliefs about nutrition or safety or labor conditions, ignorance is bliss.

That is to say, they don’t want to delve too deeply. They don’t care to look very hard for green products (or healthy foods or sweatshop-free apparel). They prefer to believe that’s what they’re already buying. Sure, they’ll give some products a once over, perhaps make a spontaneous decision or two based on an inspiring labeling claim. But I suspect they like to think the brands they trust are already pretty good, from a corporate responsibilty perspective. After all, that’s part of why they’re trusted brands. How else to explain that 90 percent -- or even half that -- of consumers believe they already seek our green products?

But if you scratch a little deeper, as these research efforts do, consumers tell you that they don’t understand the marketing claims, don’t have time to read product labels, lack the budget to invest in discretionary purchases like energy efficiency upgrades, and don’t believe companies are telling the truth.

Oh, and they have other concerns, about which marketers simply aren’t paying attention, such as their innate preference for products made domestically and their distrust for at least some foreign-made goods. (I suspect that many of them are responding to these telephone surveys on their Chinese-made mobile phones.)

It begs the question: Are companies really listening to consumers?

After all these years, this seems like a conversation still waiting to be had.

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