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May 11, 2011 Carol Pierson Holding

Consumer Behavior Could Drive Green Backlash

by Carol Pierson Holding

Green attitudes are up, but green behavior is down.

Several studies have just been released that illuminate the attitudes and behavior of consumers. First, the depressing news from a New York Times article – “As Consumers Cut Spending, ‘Green’ Products Lose Allure.”

The original independent companies like 7th Generation and Method are seeing modest increases after a decline in 2009, but the mass consumer goods companies — the ones who could really move the market — are doing so badly that in some cases, their environmental brands are being pulled off the market. For example, sales for SC Johnson’s Nature’s Source Scrubbing Bubbles dropped 71% in the past year. Arm & Hammer Essentials cleaners and laundry detergent are no longer being produced for the United States market, less than three years after they were introduced.

I was flummoxed. All the studies I’d been seeing reported consumer attitudes were becoming more green. Doesn’t behavior follow attitudes? Isn’t that what advertising is supposed to do, change attitudes so that buying behavior will change too?

Luckily, my partner majored in sociology and told me flat out, no, that’s not how it works. In fact, behavior changes attitudes and values.

Which is why I was so interested in OgilvyEarth’s study of green consumers that showed why “Green Marketing Is Failing to Motivate Mainstream America.” This study confirmed that attitudes are changing for the better. In fact “82% of Americans have good green intentions,” but only “16% are dedicated to fulfilling these intentions.” This coming from a unit of advertising giant Oglivy & Mather!

Most disturbing are the findings that existing green marketing is either irrelevant or even alienating to most Americans. The study asserts that, “Half of Americans think the green and environmentally friendly products are marketed to ‘Crunchy Granola Hippies’ or ‘Rich Elitist Snobs’ rather than ‘Everyday Americans.’” In other words, the very messages intended to change attitudes could be creating a backlash.

The OglivyEarth study further frightened me with its findings on why those who believe in green buy non-green products. They believe that prices for environmental products are higher (they are) and product performance is inferior (which, in my experience, for the most part, is still true).

In addition, some scary social assumptions are creeping into the US environmental zeitgeist:

  • A belief that being green is feminine and therefore not for males,
  • A retreat to the comfort of ignorance in the face of guilt-inducing photos of dying polar bears, and
  • The complexity of knowing how to be green.

What scares me is that non-green behavior is beginning to drive mainstream attitudes away from green in order to rationalize…non-green behavior. Attitudes following behavior.

Those 16% hardcore environmentalists will always buy products from 7th generation – even if they are inferior and cost way more. But to achieve real change, we have to figure out how to motivate the mainstream to buy green.

They are willing, but only if the products are the same in quality and price — and the advertising focuses on those benefits and not solely environmental. After all, environmentalism might be a value we all hold, but the dominant value will always be doing what’s best for our own family. And spending more money for scratchy toilet paper is not what’s best.

Carol Pierson Holding is a writer and an environmentalist; her articles on CSR can be found on her website.

Inset photo courtesy of xrrr (CC). 

Published by Carol Pierson Holding May 11, 2011