Thursday, October 1, 2009

Why Consumers Don't "Get" Green

I read an article today on MediaPost called, "The Green Divide: 85% Missing The Message" by Sarah Mahoney. Here's the lead paragraph to give you the gist of it:

A new survey underscores just how much can go wrong between a company's green intentions and consumer perception: On average, 85% of consumers are either unaware of -- or cannot recall -- the green initiatives of companies like Hewlett-Packard, Estee Lauder and Intel, even though those companies are recognized as leaders in sustainability.

First, no surprise with this research. I am educated on the topic and passionate about learning more and I still have a hard time making sound buying decisions.

To me, two issues are at play:

(1) "Green" is such a broad term. It's referenced unscrupulously everyday in every media imaginable: nontoxic, healthy, organic, sustainable, socially responsible, recyclable, recycled, cradle-to-cradle(R), natural, eco-friendly, animal-friendly, fair labor, energy-efficient, low-impact and more I'm sure I missed. Consumers can easily become overwhelmed, even the ones who care, like you and me.

(2) Green is really a continuum. Is the product green? Is the entire organization green? How many of those adjectives above apply to the product? To the company? Without a seal like the USDA Organic seal for food, it's impossible to know how green most of our purchases really are. I can imagine some sort of scale that takes all of these things into account and assigns a score, kind of like Vanno or GoodGuide (though I strongly disagree with many of their valuations), that gets added to packaging to make it easier on consumers. Who's going to take on that challenge? It has to be an independent party.

As for the companies mentioned as "environmental champions," let's take a closer look at Estee Lauder. They continue to market 21 products under their own label -- not counting 22 other personal products brands they own -- which rate 9 or 10 (highly toxic) by Environmental Working Group in their Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. Sure, EWG is only one group trying to bring clarity to use of chemicals in our world, but this raises some real issues about whether they are truly leading the way. Again, it depends on what green means to you. Obviously, I prioritize "nontoxic" and therefore do not buy Estee products, nor do I remotely think of them when I think of green companies. Focus group of one, I know. But based on my twitter experiences and blogs I read, I am not alone.

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