Debunking the Green Consumer Myth

Debunking the Green Consumer Myth

Many of you have seen the article in the Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2002, entitled "'Green' Sales Pitch Isn't Moving Many Products," describing a decline in green labeling. Although I was happy to have been a source for the article, I must take issue with one of its key conclusions. While labeling that focuses on environmental benefits is indeed on the wane, it is not necessarily a sign that American consumers do not care about our environment.

I am personally fearful that the message of this article-carrying the weight of the Wall Street Journal behind it-may discourage investment in greener products and technologies that can help maintain U.S. competitiveness in global markets while benefiting both consumers and the environment.

This special edition of The Ottman Report is an opportunity for us at J. Ottman Consulting to reiterate the principles of Green Marketing that we have been espousing for the last twelve years. With Rio +10 just around the corner and many important political initiatives now under consideration, now is a critical time for our business and political leaders to understand the true meaning of "green" when it comes to marketing and product development.

We have already heard from many of our colleagues and friends. Let us hear from you. The time couldn't be better to discuss and debate these issues -and hopefully make the business case for environmental innovation here in the U.S. We will devote the next issue of the Ottman Report to your comments.-- Jacquelyn Ottman

Starting in the 1970s, the first generation of "green" products hit American shelves, responding to new awareness on the part of consumers about environmental concerns like water and air pollution, ozone depletion, and overflowing landfills. Some of these products provided healthy, safe alternatives and quickly gained considerable market share. Others, however, fell short, failing to compete in terms of quality, convenience and price. Even worse, some used trendy "green" claims to promote products that were not environmentally preferable.

In light of this past, there still exists a segment of consumers, business leaders, and the media who are skeptical of the viability of green business initiatives. However, savvy marketers and others now know that improvements in environmental performance are not only necessary to maintaining U.S. competitiveness in many global markets, where policies like Extended Producer Responsibility, Germany's WEEE initiative, and Integrated Product Policy can catch expanding companies off-guard, but also that ambitious green goals and environmental leadership can inspire innovation and lead to outright product superiority. The products that result can be marketed to mainstream consumers on the basis of the health, convenience, good taste, etc. for which consumers buy products in the first place.

Consider the in-market success of Philips Electronics, who was hard pressed to keep enough of their Marathon compact fluorescent light bulbs on retailers shelves during California's energy crisis. Fueled by higher prices at the pump last summer, mainstream buyers are on waiting lists to get Toyota's hybrid gas-electric Prius cars that offer 60 miles to the gallon, and Honda is fast producing a hybrid version of its ever popular Civic. Maytag's ENERGY STAR® labeled water- and energy-saving Neptune, now celebrating its fifth year anniversary, has topped its sales year after year.

All three of these brand name products represent superior quality inspired by environmental values that mainstream consumers are willing to pay a premium for-- in fact, environmental efficiencies make them cheaper in the long run. All three are marketed with their superior performance front and center-Philips Marathon talks about long life, Prius its quiet ride, and Neptune its superior cleaning benefits and front-loading convenience.

And all three recognize that environmental benefits play a critically important secondary position in their consumer messaging with excellent payoffs to incremental market share, reinforced branding, and enhanced corporate reputation. These are just the tip of the iceberg. Our database of successful green products is chockful of hundreds of other examples of products that are sought after by consumers for their environmental benefits as well as their performance. Many of these products, I might add, are made by non U.S. companies.

The Journal article cites the Roper's Green Gauge statistic that 41% of consumers do not buy "green" products because of perceived inferiority. The same poll also shows, however, that concern for the environment rose to an all-time high in 2000-led by 18-29 year olds who grew up with this issue and are now bringing it to schools, workplaces and voting booths. 56% agree that "I would do more for the environment, but I don't know how." These are the same consumers who won't let President Bush off the hook for refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol, or for proposing oil drilling in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge. Among them are millions of New Yorkers who vehemently oppose Mayor Bloomberg's proposal to cut kill recycling as a budgetary measure.

The reality in today's marketplace is that, thanks to advances in technology and ingenious entrepreneurship, more and more successful new products do not ask consumers to make a choice between quality and values. Environmentalism is embedded in our culture, and so is market competitiveness. We have what it takes to create the next generation of products to honor both priorities. We look forward to the day when "green" will rightfully be equated with "superior performance", and when those of us in the U.S. can fully embrace this to our economic benefit and the benefit of the environment.


Jacquelyn Ottman is president of J. Ottman Consulting, Inc., a NYC-based marketing consulting firm that advises companies on how to develop and market environmentally sound products. She is the author of Green Marketing: Opportunity for Innovation.

Copyright 2002 by J. Ottman Consulting, Inc.