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Consumers Are Confused on What is Green and Who to Trust

Bill Roth | Monday June 21st, 2010 | 9 Comments

Consumer confusion on what is green and who to trust was the major theme of the market researchers presenting at the Sustainable Brands 2010 conference.

The positive news is that, as declared by Suzzane Shelton founder of Shelton Group, going green has “gone mainstream” with 64% of the population now actively looking for green products. Supporting this conclusion was Linda Gilbert, President of Ecofocus Worldwide. She reported, “87% of Americans say it doesn’t matter if you believe in global warming, we have to change how we impact the environment.” Conference presenters poured out insightful terms and phrases defining the emerging green consumer’s buying behavior including “Recycling Republicans,” “Eco-moms” and “A healthier planet a healthier me.”

Gwynne Rogers, of Natural Marketing Institute outlined market research identifying the “Drifters-group” as a key consumer group due to their numbers (1/4 of all consumers) and their dramatic shift into buying green. 65% of Drifters have reduced their use of plastic water bottles compared to 33% of the LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) market segment. Drifters have also increased by 50% their purchase of natural household products; double the size of the general public’s (25%). Significantly, Drifters are becoming less price-sensitive to buying green as they become more engaged in demonstrating their commitment to being “in” with being green. Insightfully, Rogers noted that quick sound bites, simple messaging and “flash” connects best with Drifters that look to Good Morning America, the Today Show and 60 Minutes as their information resources.

Yet, while consumers want to go green they are thirsting for trust. They are now questioning once trusted brands like Kellogg that has been fined by the FDA for over representing the nutritional claims of their cereals. Angrily, one speaker challenged out loud, “How much longer will Kellogg continue their wasteful packaging practices of placing their cereals in a bag that they place inside a box that is twice the size of the bag of cereal contained inside?”

This consumer confusion over what is green and who to trust has resulted in a green branding void. Shelton noted that consumers could name Energy Star as a trusted logo. But they cannot name a consumer electronic brand or company that is green. Shelton’s market research also revealed that while consumers do recognize the concept of a “green home” they could not name a single design feature that would be included in a green home. Several speakers spoke to the consumer’s uncertainty regarding the distinction between a food that is organic versus one that is natural or how consumers cannot correctly identify the name of a harmful chemical.

Finally, consumers are confused on which companies are really green. Market research found that consumers view Starbucks as less sustainable than Wendy’s while sustainability experts rank Starbucks as a leader among retailers in adopting sustainable business practices. Similarly, sustainability experts rank Unilever as world class in their adoption of sustainable practices but consumers cannot name a Unilever green product. In contrast, Clorox has grown their Green Works product line to a $100 million annual revenue brand and Cohn & Wolfe’s recent survey ranked Clorox’s Burt’s Bees as the most recognized green brand in America.

From this consumer confusion every market researcher at the conference saw tremendous business opportunities for those companies that can successfully build a green brand trust-connection with the consumer. The same concepts of trust, reputation and product performance that attract consumers to our historical brand leaders are what the experts say will attract a consumer to a green brand. As Gilbert exhorted, “Step up and do it for them” by building green brands that make choosing to buy green easy, convenient and affordable. And speaker after speaker focused upon making the brand personal. Consumers are going green not to save the world. They are going green to benefit their health, wellness and to save money.

In summary, market research says consumers are:

Fearful. They view their health, and those of their children, as being threatened by imported Chinese toys laced with lead and McDonald’s Shrek cups imprinted with cadmium. Consumers demand the peace of mind that what they are buying is not a health risk to them or their loved ones.

Searching. They are trying to figure out what foods promote their wellness. They are looking for ways to create home indoor air quality that promotes the wellness of their families. They are looking at labels and finding them lacking due to their ability to answer their wellness questions in a manner that is easy to understand and that is supported with credible, trustworthy documentation.

Seeking Value. Consumers expect to achieve pocket book value from buying green. They are buying CFL lights to save money. They are investing in solar to protect themselves against future price increases by their utility company. Saving money is one of the top three reasons a consumer buys a Prius.

Kierstin De West of Ci Research re-enforced these observation with a presentation on the marketing value created from communicating at a personal level with the consumer. Her firm’s research found that consumers were focused upon the intersection of personal and social issues. Consumers are seeking solutions for their “community” such as their family, their neighborhood and their children’s schools. Kierstin noted that market research is documenting a feeling among consumers of “drowning in the American dream.”

Finally, several speakers spoke to the distrust consumers have in mass advertising. Bob Gilbreath of Marketing With Meaning spoke to The Next Revolution In Marketing. Interruptive ads that “tell and sell” are paling in their effectiveness compared to the new advertising paradigm of “marketing with meaning” where people chose to engage with a company’s messaging. Leadership examples cited by Gilbreath include the Charmin iPhone app called SitorSquat that searches for a nearby bathroom and the Kroger/Clorox collaboration of offering a Clorox sanitary wipe when a grocery customer is selecting a shopping cart.

In summary, The Green Economic Revolution has arrived. Consumers are seeking to buy green. However, they are confused and frustrated, searching for authentic, trustworthy, credible and easy to understand brands that connect with both their rational and emotional reasons for adopting sustainability into their lives and lifestyles.

Bill Roth is the founder of Earth 2017 and author of The Secret Green Sauce.


▼▼▼      9 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • http://vivbizclub.com/products/biodegradable-food-packaging/compostable-cold-cups/ Dinesh Thirupuvanam

    This lack of trust is really cascading into a variety of green products and marketplaces. I work in the compostable food ware space and we've been having a huge issue with companies & manufacturers claiming that poly-ethylene lined hot cups are compostable. Of course it's not true (these cups are not certified compostable according to ASTM and are not accepted by composting facilities), and this type of green washing is having a massively negative affect on consumers & business owners.

    It's a tough issue to solve, but we need better government regulation across so many areas of the green market to counteract the trust issue and the negative externalities associated with this lack of regulation (ahem… BP oil spill).

    • Bill Roth

      Thanks for the insightful observation on cup recycling. A real issues as consumers attempt to act responsibly by choosing compostable solutions but our country's waste management systems are struggling to implement.

      • http://vivbizclub.com/products/biodegradable-food-packaging/compostable-cold-cups/ dinesh

        Sure thing Bill. We actually just did a blog post on one of the manufacturer's making false claims, Georgia Pacific, if you want to check it out – http://vivbizclub.com/blog/2010/06/23/georgia-p

        It's a bad situation for consumers who are mistrustful & don't know what to buy, but it's also bad for the folks managing composting facilities as these items end up contaminating compost (particularly for organic facilities).

  • http://vivbizclub.com/products/biodegradable-food-packaging/compostable-cold-cups/ Dinesh Thirupuvanam

    This lack of trust is really cascading into a variety of green products and marketplaces. I work in the compostable food ware space and we've been having a huge issue with companies & manufacturers claiming that poly-ethylene lined hot cups are compostable. Of course it's not true (these cups are not certified compostable according to ASTM and are not accepted by composting facilities), and this type of green washing is having a massively negative affect on consumers & business owners.

    It's a tough issue to solve, but we need better government regulation across so many areas of the green market to counteract the trust issue and the negative externalities associated with this lack of regulation (ahem… BP oil spill).

  • goodworkpeople

    It's tough when you walk down the aisle at a home improvement store and every brand is trying to capitalize on the GREEN buzz word. Plastic products pitch themselves as GREEN because they haven't harmed any trees and wood products pitch themselves as GREEN because they are all natural. By what standard are we supposed to judge?

    No wonder consumers are confused and distrustful.

  • Bill Roth

    RIGHT ON TARGET, consumers are desperate for clarity on what to buy and who to trust. Thanks for your post.

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  • http://twitter.com/honeydew5 Irene Patruno

    Very interesting article. I am writing a MA dissertation on role of PR in the distrust of consumers, lead by greenwashed claims. I will certainly use it in my bibliography.

  • dual sim phone

    RIGHT ON TARGET, consumers are desperate for clarity on what to buy and who to trust. Thanks for your post

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  • http://www.wipro.com Wipro Council for Industry Research

    In order to position your brand as eco-friendly, participate in community out-reach. Once your brand is actually living its eco-friendly promise, you can position it as a leader in the green movement. Have your brand managers participate in panel discussions, interviews, and lead them through executive appearances and speeches at eco-friendly conferences, trade shows, and so on. The brand managers must not only attend these conferences, but be experts in eco-friendly business based on actual experience. Eventually, your brand will earn the ‘green’ reputation.