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Earth Day, Green Marketing, and the Polling of America, 2008

It's time for my (second) annual survey of surveys — the bounty of public opinion polls on green topics that seems to sprout every spring in time for Earth Day.

It's time for my (second) annual survey of surveys — the bounty of public opinion polls on green topics that seems to sprout every spring in time for Earth Day. A half-dozen or so years ago, there were perhaps a couple such surveys. Today, there are more than a dozen, ranging from substantive to silly to self-serving.

All told, they paint a portrait that hasn't changed much over the past twenty years: The public wants to buy green products and support good companies. Of course, what this means — and how to define both "green" and "good" — is where the devil meets the eco-details.

But there's something slightly different about this year's bumper crop of data. A shred of realism seems to be creeping into the mix. Whereas such polls traditionally were pretty enthusiastic, a few now acknowledge that the green marketplace is no bed of organic roses, thanks in large part to consumers' lack of understanding of key environmental issues, and their innate distrust of companies' green proclamations.

The overly enthusiastic tone of some polls is understandable, once you scratch the surface. Market researchers proffer tantalizing sketches of the various eco-minded personalities, hoping to entice corporate clients to pay the big bucks for more in-depth and customized data. And then there are the fairly blatant self-serving surveys. A provider of videoconferencing technologies reports that a significant number of workers would prefer to participate in an important meeting by phone or web conference! Well, of course.

So, what did this year's surveys reveal? Here are highlights:

  • Almost four in 10 Americans are preferentially buying products they believe to be environmentally friendly, though almost half (48%) erroneously believes such products are beneficial for the planet, as opposed to simply being less harmful, according to the 2008 Green Gap Survey from Cone LLC and the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship. It also found that Americans are pretty open to companies' green messages: 47% trust companies to tell them the truth in environmental messaging; 45% believe companies are accurately communicating information about their impact on the environment; and 61% say they understand the environmental terms companies use in their advertising.

  • Gallup's annual environment poll found that 28% of Americans say they have made "major changes" in their lifestyles to protect the environment. Forty percent say they worry "a great deal" about "the quality of the environment," ranking far below the 60% who worry about the economy and the 58% who worry about the availability and affordability of healthcare.

  • Almost 200 million Americans buy green products, reports the market research firm Mintel, which also found that the number of new products with an environmentally friendly claim has grown substantially over the past five years — from five such product launches in 200 to "a staggering" 328 in 2007. "Price, perceived value and convenience drive these purchases as more and more people take on a green lifestyle," the company reports. "Thanks to manufacturers' recent moves, consumers can now find more choices of environmentally friendly products than ever before." (Mintel doesn't put these 328 new green products into perspective, one of my pet peeves. So I will: There are about 20,000 new product introductions a year in just the food and beverage category.) Another Mintel study reported that "over one-third of adults (36%) claim to 'regularly' buy green products," triple the number 16 months ago.

  • Consumer recall of advertising with green messaging is very high, with more than a third (37%) of consumers saying they frequently recall green messaging and an additional third recalling it occasionally (33%), according to Burst Media. (Again, some perspective would be helpful here: How does 37% compare with overall add ad recall?) One in five (23%) respondents say they seldom or never believe green claims made in advertisements. Two-thirds (65%) of respondents say they "sometimes" believe green claims made in advertisements, and 12% say they "always" believe green advertising claims. More than 40% of consumers frequently or occasionally research the claims made in green advertisements.

  • Consumers expect to see significant company commitments to environmental leadership before they buy the green marketing hype, according to marketing firm EcoAlign. Seventy-seven percent of consumers think that an operational commitment to energy efficiency or green energy is the single most important quality of a corporation trying to be an environmental leader. When respondents asked which of 12 major companies they thought were most committed to using or providing renewable energy. GE dominated with 81%, while Toyota came in second at 65%. However, 54% of consumers had difficulty naming any company that supplied renewable or green energy. GE and BP received the most mentions, but only represented 4% to 5% of responses. (In reality, neither firm supplies much if any green energy, though both manufacture solar panels and GE manufactures wind turbines; BP has a tiny renewable energy division, representing less than 1% of its total revenue.)

  • One in ten Americans say that they have looked up their personal or household's carbon footprint, according to Harris Interactive. Younger Americans are more likely to have done so. Almost one in five (18%) Echo Boomers (aged 18-31) say they have looked up their carbon footprint, compared to 11% of Gen Xers (aged 32-43), 9% of Baby Boomers (aged 44-62), and 6% of Matures (63 and older). Regardless of whether they are calculating their carbon footprint, Americans claim that they are doing things that will reduce it and their carbon emissions. Almost two-thirds say they may have reduced the amount of energy they use in their home, 43% have purchased more energy-efficient appliances, 27% they have started purchasing more locally grown food, and 21% have stopped drinking bottled water.

  • Only 3% of consumers "always" buy green products and 66% said that they "sometimes" purchase them, according to the Shopper Environmental Sentiment survey from corporate real estate giant Jones Lang LaSalle. The survey was taken across 34 Jones Lang LaSalle-managed shopping malls. Around 40% said that they were willing to "do what it takes" to protect and improve the environment, and more than half always recycle at home. Almost two thirds of respondents were interested in learning more about simple ways to save energy.

It's a mixed bag of data, to be sure — and more than a little bewildering. Are consumers really making "major changes" in their lifestyles and purchases, as Gallup reports? Are individuals' carbon footprint numbers on their way to becoming as ubiquitous as cholesterol numbers, as Harris suggests? Are we making more environmentally conscious purchase decisions, as Cone and others report? Will four in ten consumers really "do what it takes" to solve our environmental problems, as Jones Lang LaSalle found? As I have stated so many other times (see here, here, here, and here), I'm a tad skeptical.

One thing is clear: The din is growing. A Nielsen BuzzMetrics report, Sustainability through the Eyes and Megaphones of the Blogosphere, found that the "buzz around sustainability" grew 50% last year. Given the dozens of new books, TV specials, Earth Day events, and green advertising campaigns abounding this April — with more of all of these to come — it's safe to say that the buzz will continue for a while.

The question, as always, is whether (or when) the frenzy will yield to fatigue.

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