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Two Steps Forward

Green Consumers' Irrational Exuberance

<p>What is it with pollsters and green consumers? Why do nearly all of the surveys seem so gushingly optimistic, even during pessimistic times? That&#39;s a question that&#39;s been nagging me the past few weeks.</p>

What is it with pollsters and green consumers? Why do nearly all of the surveys seem so gushingly optimistic, even during pessimistic times? That's a question that's been nagging me the past few weeks.

I typically wait until near Earth Day in April to digest the current wave of surveys about green consumers in the U.S. (see here and here, for example), but the trickle of survey results has turned into a gusher much earlier this year than I can recall. Nearly a dozen surveys have crossed my in-box over the past three months, a period that includes a recession, a presidential transition, and the December holidays.

A sampling:

• Four out of five people say they are still buying green products and services today, even in the midst of a U.S. recession, according to a study commissioned by Green Seal and EnviroMedia Social Marketing and conducted by Opinion Research Corp.
• Despite the dire economy, 34% of American consumers indicate they are more likely to buy environmentally responsible products today, and another 44% indicate their environmental shopping habits have not changed as a result of the economy, while only 8% say they are less likely to buy, according to the 2009 Cone Consumer Environmental Survey.
• Thirty-three percent of consumers say they expect to make some type of green consumer electronics purchase within the next two years, according to a survey by the Consumer Electronics Association. More than half (53%) say they would be willing to pay some type of premium for televisions with green attributes, and 89% said that energy efficiency would be a factor in choosing their next television -- even as less than half of the 960 people surveyed said they're generally able to make sense of the environmental attributes attached to electronics on the market.
• An overwhelming majority of Americans believe that safer, cleaner and more energy-efficient production are the most important manufacturing issues in today's economy, according to a survey by Opinion Research Corp. When considering a manufacturing company, Americans chose product and employee safety, and environmental issues as the most important attributes. Among the top answers chosen include "provide safe, quality products" (86%); "provide a safe workplace" (84%); "use natural resources efficiently" (80%); and "produce minimal waste" (71%).
• Three-quarters (77%) of consumers describe themselves as green -- that is, actively living their lives consciously of their health and environment, according to a survey by Yahoo! More than half of survey respondents (57%) say they have made a green purchase in the past 6 months.
• Americans see a golden age for green investing, according to a survey by Allianz Global Investors. Seventy-eight percent of investors say we are likely to see more policies to promote business investment in new environmental technologies in the first year of the Obama Administration than we did under eight years of the Bush Administration. Further, 74% believe the new Congress will be more supportive of policies to promote business investment in new environmental technologies than the old Congress.

There's more, but I'll spare you. Did I mention that they tended to be a tad optimistic?

Many of these surveys begin to wilt when exposed to sunlight -- that is, when you read beyond the headline and first few paragraphs of the press release or executive summary. And some are more than a little self-serving. For example, the survey on Americans wanting "more energy-efficient production" by manufacturers was commissioned by Rockwell Automation, a manufacturer of equipment to make factories more efficient. The survey on consumer electronics was issued during holiday shopping season by the electronics industry's trade group. The one on green investing came from a major asset management company. The study concluding that "About one in three consumers say they don't know how to tell if green product claims are true" came from Green Seal, a purveyor of eco-labels.

Beyond that, there's the slant of some surveys that doesn't hold up to scrutiny. For example, according to the Green Seal/EnviroMedia study:

Half of the 1,000 people surveyed say they are buying just as many green products now as before the economic downturn, while 19 percent say they are buying more green products. Fourteen percent say they are buying fewer environmentally green products.

The way I read this, if I wasn't buying green products before the economic downturn, and am still not doing so, I'm therefore "buying just as many green products now as before" -- and fit right in with half the population. Maybe it's just bad writing, but such ambiguity undermines the authority of these studies.

I'm not suggesting that these surveys are frauds, or that their creators are anything but well-intended. But you don't need a degree in market research to conclude that during a time when consumption is down and the people are pinching pennies as never before, the unbridled buoyancy of these findings is suspect. Are green-minded shoppers really going forth into the marketplace as idealistic as ever? Are they immune to premium prices? Clearly, some green purchases may fall into the category of small indulgences whose sales often rise during tough times, but probably not to the extent reported by these findings.

As I've asked in the past: Can researchers be charged with greenwashing?

What, in the end, is the purpose of all these studies? Are they marketers' efforts to convince wary consumers that everyone else is keeping green purchases on their shopping lists in the hopes that it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Is that a realistic expectation in a time where layoffs and foreclosures are mounting by the week?

Or are American consumers, and probably those elsewhere, simply telling pollsters what they want them to hear: that they continue vote for a cleaner, greener world when they shop? And if consumers are being misleading, shouldn't sophisticated researchers ferret that out?

What's the truth behind consumers' seeming irrational exuberance for green? I'd love to know.

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