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Two Steps Forward

Earth Day and the polling of America, 2023

Consumers express growing interest in purchasing greener products despite growing skepticism about environmental marketing claims. Can both be true?

Lots of raised hands with a variety of yes, no, maybe responses

GreenBiz photocollage, via Shutterstock

The polls are back.

For much of the past two decades, April has brought forth a profusion of colorful findings about Americans’ environmental views and habits. I’ve been chronicling these data since 2007, minus the past two years when the surveys were scaled back, presumably due to pandemic-related reasons.

Whatever the cause, spring 2023 has brought a bumper crop of surveys, so I’m resuming my stock-taking of what they’re finding and what they mean.

The top line: Americans seem increasingly concerned about environmental issues, notably the climate crisis, but are as confused as ever about what to do about it and whether to believe companies’ green messaging. That confusion is reflected in the dueling narratives of two of the more prominent 2023 surveys:

  • "Consumers care about sustainability — and back it up with their wallets," said consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which fielded a survey with market researcher NielsenIQ to examine "sales growth for products that claim to be environmentally and socially responsible."
  • "U.S. consumers expressed much greater skepticism about essential sources of information about the environmental effects of products," reported another researcher, GfK, in its annual Green Gauge study.

Of course, both can be true: Consumers could claim growing interest in purchasing products deemed environmentally superior despite growing skepticism about marketing claims. Still, it takes some mental jujitsu to align the two sentiments. My hunch is that consumers are still talking far more than they’re walking.

Buried within those seemingly paradoxical views is a smidgen of good news for companies and their marketing partners.

Buried within those seemingly paradoxical views is a smidgen of good news for companies and their marketing partners.

According to GfK, Americans trust product labels over most other sources — news programming, local or national governments, advertisements, online reviews, even friends and family — in conveying environmental information, at least for food and cleaning products.

And surveys continue to show high consumer interest, if not always accompanying action, in making green purchases. Nearly three-quarters told GfK they are "interested in buying products that have labels with information about their carbon footprint/emissions." That syncs with a recent finding by NielsenIQ that 78 percent of U.S. consumers say "a sustainable lifestyle" is important to them.

That’s the good news. (You knew it wasn’t all good news, right?) There’s still bountiful confusion and, dare I say it, hypocrisy among American consumers about whether and how they are supporting companies and products deemed better for people and the planet.

Said McKinsey: "[Consumer packaged goods] executives report that one challenge to their companies’ environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives is the inability to generate sufficient consumer demand for these products."

This from the same report that claimed that consumers were backing up their sustainability concerns "with their wallets." So which is it?

"ESG," in this context, is apparently being used synonymously with "sustainability," as opposed to the ESG data and rankings used by many investors to assess company risk.

Reality bites

Consider recycling, which it seems most Americans embrace wholeheartedly, despite the eternally dismal stats on how much actually gets recycled. As my friend, marketer Suzanne Shelton, points out: 95 percent of Americans believe recycling helps the environment, and 76 percent say recycling helps them feel better about all the stuff they buy. It’s also the No. 1 way to address climate change, they believe. A recent survey from Arris, a U.S. manufacturer of lightweight composites, backs this. It found 70 percent of Americans name recycling as the No. 1 thing they do to help the environment.

As always, Americans’ green aspirations far exceed reality. According to the latest data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, just 32 percent of waste gets recycled or composted, putting Americans in 25th place globally, just behind Estonians and Hungarians. Similarly, Arris found that 28 percent of Americans say they are "cutting out meat and dairy," despite that U.S. per-capita beef consumption is essentially unchanged since 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and per-capita dairy consumption has been flat for about 40 years.

And then there’s the data about whether consumers will pay more for the privilege of buying products or from companies they deem to be more environmentally and socially responsible. (That question has always rankled me: It presupposes that greener products necessarily cost more, which isn’t the case.) For more than three decades, a large majority of consumers have told market researchers that they are ready, willing and able to pay a premium for greener goods, an aspirational trend that doesn’t appear to have abated, even in these quasi-inflationary times.

In 2023, 78 percent of Americans say they would pay more for products with "environmental/sustainable/charitable benefits," according to the research firm Prodege. Specifically, consumers say they are willing to pay more for benefits that are environmentally sustainable (41 percent), organic (35 percent) or from companies "dedicated to social and environmental change" (29 percent).

For those of us who’ve been tracking the painfully slow uptake of greener products across a broad range of categories, such sentiments stretch credulity.

As I wrote in my 2007 "polling of America" report: "Americans want clean, affordable and carefree solutions to climate change and every other environmental challenge. But don't ask most of them to change their habits, spend more or go very far out of their way." Sixteen years later, things are largely unchanged.

As corporate commitments and actions move beyond sustainability toward regenerative and restorative goals, and those aimed at circular models of production and consumption, the gap between aspiration and action will likely grow, because such goals move well beyond recycling or simple labeling claims.

According to NielsenIQ:

The conversation is now evolving from sustainability (which is about minimizing impact) to regeneration (rebuilding or repairing the damage that has been done). The conversation is now about humanity. How do we care for each other? (Social responsibility, social equity and justice.) And how do we care for all living things? (Animal welfare.)

Can caring for critters and one another achieve the same levels of enthusiasm among Americans as, say, recycling bottles and cans? And how does that happen during a time of increased polarization around sustainability and ESG, not to mention challenging economic climes?

It’s difficult to square the two. As evidenced by decades of polls, consumers seem to be sticking to their narrative of proactive concern while reality begs to differ.

​​Thanks for reading. You can find my past articles here. Also, I invite you to follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn, subscribe to my Monday morning newsletter, GreenBuzz, from which this was reprinted, and listen to GreenBiz 350, my weekly podcast, co-hosted with Heather Clancy.

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