Ever since the resurgence of environmentalism in 1990, consumer polls have attempted to measure awareness, attitudes and behaviors towards environmental issues and products. Poll after poll has found that consumers claim to be concerned about the issues, they report high levels of green product purchase, and even claim willingness to pay a premium for greener products and packages. But empirical evidence doesn’t seem to jibe with the research. In some markets, green products barely eke out 3% share, in contrast to the near majorities of consumers who express to pollsters interest in all things green. And despite consumer pronouncements otherwise, premium-priced green brands often gather dust on shelves. What can explain the gap between the polls and actual in-market performance? Are consumers lying to pollsters in an attempt to look virtuous? Is the spirit willing but the pocketbook weak? Or is it possible that we ourselves need to change the way we view the green consumer market — and ask different questions? I suspect the latter.
What is “green” — exactly?
One of the biggest challenges in defining “green”, whether it be consumers, products or ads, is that “green,” like the planet itself, encompasses everything — air, water, biological life, chemicals, energy, you name it. When it comes to zeroing in on “green” products, what constitutes “green” can run the entire gamut of one or more attributes spanning a product’s lifecycle starting with raw materials (“sustainably harvested”, “organic” and “recycled”), right through to disposal (“compostable”, “recyclable,”) — and everything in between. And most consumers can be said to be “green” in some way. For instance, NMI’s 2011 US LOHAS Consumers Trends poll found that 83% — an overwhelming majority of consumers — said they identified with green at some level. (Who wouldn’t be for green?). So when majorities of consumers say they are concerned about environmental issues and express interest in buying green products and recycling their newspapers and bottles, chances are they are telling the truth.
Consumers may think they are actually greener than we give them credit for.
Is it possible that polls may overstate green consumer purchasing and behavior because consumers think that some of the conventional products they buy are actually green? Consider the language on the back of bottle of Tide. Every bottle of Tide—and many other big laundry detergent brands, too — now carries a recycling label and these messages: “Bottle made from 25% or more post-consumer plastic,” “Contains no phosphates,” “Ingredients include biodegradable surfactants (anionic and nonionic) and enzymes.” This all sounds pretty green to me! Even without such language, is it possible that consumers may believe that trusted brands from reputable companies are “green” —or that the government is watching out? Do greener products need to scream green via eco-logos and images of planets, babies and daisies to merit a check mark in the “green” column? Consider, too that white vinegar and baking soda have long been touted as green cleaning aids but don’t sport eco-logos of any stripe.
There may not even be such as thing as “green” marketing.
When the FTC Green Guides are issued in revised form (likely this year), what are referred to as “generalized environmental claims” will most likely be discouraged. So “green” marketing is really an umbrella term for educating consumers about the various specific environmental benefits and attributes of one’s products or company. Babies, planets and daisies are quickly disappearing from the vernacular — and in their place are claims for particular environmental attributes. So the answers to the $64,000 dollar questions of green marketing: Who is the “green” consumer and will she pay a premium for green? may be that all (or, okay, most ) consumers are green consumers since most consumers may think they are already buying green products, however they may define them. And the extent to which they are willing to pay a premium may be no different for “green” than other products and that is: Do they provide value?
The Path Forward
What we seem to be dealing with, then, is a question of semantics, and the challenge of knowing which questions to ask to help us understand green market opportunities. “Green” is a cozy, easy to remember term, but it may not be so useful in communicating with consumers who likely have their own interpretations of ”green” expressed throughout their day-to-day lives. And misleading polls results don’t help to build credibility for investment among skeptical business people who for the past 20-plus years have been hearing that consumers “don’t care” and “won’t pay a premium”.
To those willing to take a shot at rebuilding interest and credibility in all things “green”, remember three important things: 1) Most consumers want to do the right thing. They want clean air and clean water, healthful food to eat, litter-free parks and beaches to play in, and energy to run their lives; 2) Whether it be keeping their bathtub clean, saving for retirement, driving the speed limit or eating healthily, all consumers tend to overstate virtuous behavior to pollsters. (More than we would like, they report the person they aspire to be, or who they are just part of the time). And; 3) just like for all products, most consumers will only pay a premium when products demonstrate genuine added value.
Although it might take a little doing, most consumers have the wherewithal to understand the building blocks of “green”, e.g., “recycled”, “recyclable” and “biodegradable”. Happily, businesses have the wherewithal to address consumers’ needs and to do it sustainably. Their motivations: a competitive advantage, profits, brand loyalty, motivated employees, the ability to innovate, and the promise of a business that will be sustained over time.
- Jacquelyn A. Ottman, founder and principal, J. Ottman Consulting, Inc. is expert advisor on green marketing to Fortune 500 companies and the US government. She is the author of the newly released The New Rules of Green Marketing: Strategies, Tools, and Inspiration for Sustainable Branding. It was recently named by Cambridge University as a Top 40 Sustainability Book of 2010. Since founding J. Ottman Consulting, Inc.nearly 20 years ago, Jacquelyn and her colleagues have helped more than 60 Fortune 500 businesses, the Energy Star label and other organizations learn how to seize opportunities by pro-actively addressing consumers' environmental concerns. Ottman has helped clients develop concepts for exciting new products with less environmental impact and strategies for reaching green consumers while minimizing the risk of backlash. Her book, Green Marketing: Opportunity for Innovation is called the "definitive work on the subject" by the American Marketing Association. Jacquelyn is a sought-after speaker at conferences and corporate forums run by IBM, 3M, Philips Electronics, and GE, and one of the true pioneers of green marketing. She also serves as program co-chair of Sustainable Brands '08, as well as host to SLM's Sustainable Brands Weekly. The principal organizer and driving spirit behind the Design:Green eco-design educational initiative, she sits on the Advisory Board of the Centre for Sustainable Design (U.K.), the Center for Small Business and the Environment, and the NYC chapter of O2, of which she is a past co-chairman. For seven years, she chaired the jury of the American Marketing Association's Special Edison Awards for Environmental Achievement.