News Flash: 110% of Consumers Shop Green!

This just in: pretty much every consumer is concerned about the environment and is thinking conscientiously about what they buy — how it's made, under what conditions, and by whom. All you have to do is make good, green stuff and they'll buy it! We've reached the tipping point!

Sound too good to be true? It is, of course. But you wouldn't know it from the marketing studies I've been seeing — and the breathless headlines that result. As they continue to invade my in-box, I find myself getting increasingly irritated. Can market researchers be accused of greenwash? I'm beginning to wonder.

Two examples:

I don't profess to have studies that refute these, but you don't need to be a social scientist to know that neither of the above conclusions is on the money. Half of consumers do not consider sustainability when buying packaged goods — everything from cosmetics to cleaners, Rice-a-Roni to razor blades. (Do half your friends and family members shop this way?) And to think 90% of us are "conscious consumers" when it comes to the planet? C'mon. Half of us aren't even conscious about what we put into our bodies.

Such studies aren't new. They have been coming out for years, boasting about the high percentage — usually, a significant majority — of consumers that say they are integrating environmental and social considerations into their purchases. I've written about some of these in the past (see here, here, and here).

I don't mean to suggest that any of these research firms are misleading us. I know many of these people, and they are as earnest and diligent as the day is long. They ask questions, get answers, and crunch the numbers. But common sense — or simply looking around — shows us how far reality is from these numbers. Walk the aisles at your local supermarket or big-box retailer. How many of the products you see reflect sustainability values? How about the companies that make them? How about the stores that sell them? How many shoppers are bothering to ask such questions?

Things are changing in ways that make some of these reports more sinister than seductive. Over the past six months, the G-word — greenwashing — seems to have risen from the dead to become a vibrant part of the conversation. There's now a Greenwashing Index, a Greenwash Brigade, greenwash lists, and lots of handwringing. And, of course, the Six Sins of Greenwashing.

It's all good. As the number of companies making green claims grows — by the way, has anyone actually measured that growth? — we need vigilant watchdogs, even though there's far from unanimity about what is, and isn't, greenwash. (Ad Age's list of 2007's best and worst is telling — note that GE (via NBC Universal), Toyota, and Wal-Mart all showed up on both the good and bad lists.)

In that light, these green consumer studies seem something of a sucker punch. "Come on, jump in. There's a vast audience waiting to buy what you sell. But it better be damn green, and your messaging better be pitch perfect in both tone and content. And your company better not have any skeletons, or be doing anything environmentally untoward or selling other products that don't seem green."

We want it both ways. We want companies to do better, to green up their products, and to distribute them far and wide. We have high hopes and higher expectations. But we lack standards and basic agreement about how good things have to be — the products as well as the companies that make them.

How does a company operate in an world of hyped-up market research, few norms or standards, and sky-high expectations from consumers and activists who monitor their every move?

I'm not suggesting that we take whatever companies dish out. We need to shift products and markets in significantly greener directions. And they need to be good-quality, affordable products. Anything less is wasting our time and money — both limited resources, one of them nonrenewable.

What do you think? Should we be flaunting studies that don't jibe with societal or market realities, then punish manufacturers that seek to tap those markets if they are less than perfect? How do we accelerate the growth of the green economy and still maintain high standards? How do we encourage companies that are trying, while pushing them to aim even higher?

To what standards should we hold companies? To what standards should we hold ourselves?






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