Does It Really Matter Why People Buy Green?

Does It Really Matter Why People Buy Green?

In a recent blog post, GreenBiz.com’s own Joel Makower lamented the lack of progress for green products becoming synonymous with better products.

His post left us thinking two things: One, is it really true that green doesn’t equal better in people’s minds, and two, in the end, does it really matter why people buy green just so long as they do?  After all, when more people buy green, for whatever reason, sustainability becomes a mainstream value, which is good for everybody.

First, we respectfully disagree with Joel that mainstream consumers see green products as worse than conventional products, feeling they must sacrifice quality, affordability, convenience or other important attributes.

Our recent Eco Pulse study found this long-held perception is falling by the wayside. Forty-seven percent of those we surveyed said they believe green products are usually of equal quality and effectiveness, 23 percent said green products are sometimes better quality/more effective, and 6 percent said green products are always better/more effective. That's almost three quarters of the population who don't think green products are usually inferior or a compromise and nearly a third who believe green products are, in fact, better.

Second, we agree with Joel on his point that there are multiple definitions of "better," each dependent on individual circumstances, needs and mood. And our research has shown quite clearly that even among the greenest consumer segments, there are multiple reasons and motivations to buy green, and they differ by product category.

In our soon-to-be-released Green Living Pulse study, we tested messaging statements based on the work of the authors of makingmeaning.org. The authors have defined 15 ways humans derive meaning, ranging from justice to beauty, redemption to community. Our research showed that messaging that promised harmony with the environment, control over saving money and health, redemption, validation, duty, and beauty were considered better reasons for buying green. Not surprisingly, we saw some interesting differences between genders, age groups, ethnic groups and consumer segments.

So here's our position: It's time for green marketers to wake up and smell the non-shade-grown coffee. It's time to embrace the fact that everyone isn't motivated by hard-core, straight-up green messaging. And that's OK. People are simply more complicated and nuanced than that.

But if marketers can give people a reason to buy -- whether it's a functional reason or emotional reason -- and they buy a green product, isn't that a win? Let's not judge people's reasons for buying green as positive or negative. If we can give people a reason to care and to buy green, even if that reason is about looking cool or feeling in control, then we're making progress.

Suzanne C. Shelton is founder, president and CEO of Shelton Group, an advertising agency focused exclusively on motivating mainstream consumers to make sustainable choices.

CFLs - Image CC licensed by Flickr user Clean Wal-Mart