Interview with Sharon Greene, RISC International on Green Consumer Trends

risc-logoAt November’s Opportunity Green conference, I missed my chance to connect with Sharon Greene of RISC International, but she was kind enough to answer some questions via email, which I’ve put together in a short interview format below.

Greene is the managing director of global consumer behavior consultancy RISC International, and knows a thing or two about why and how people shop, especially in Europe. She’s also acutely aware of how “green” and social conscious awareness is affecting the evolution of global consumptive habits in a generally positive direction.

Nick Aster: Is “green” still an important factor for today’s buying decisions?

Yes. But it is only one element of a multifaceted consumer trend which we call “Positive Consumption.” These components emerged several years ago, but are now strongly converging to make out a complete trend.

In a nutshell, now is a frustrating time for consumers. They live in a world of permanent risk, profound demographic changes, ubiquitous technology and increasing globalization. They want to regain control and initiative, and need help to reconcile their personal desires and needs with those of society. They still like to buy, of course. But now, they know that they should think about the consequences, become aware that in order to keep on buying, they will need to buy more wisely and more responsibly. They have become aware that in order to keep on buying they need to buy better, more wisely and more responsibly.

Nick Aster: Is green simply expected now and should companies no longer use it as a marketing tool?

Yes it is expected and an important aspiration for the consumer. But it should not be the only selling point of a product. We identified an increasing convergence of five facets of the Positive Consumption trend, which all come together within the same individual consumer:

1. Social Engagement – or consumer empowerment – is the main dimension driving Positive Consumption across the world, it reflects a growing desire to engage and give back to society but also to take back control over one’s life, it’s all about reciprocity.
2. Environment – characterized by an active concern for environmental issues and a desire to do what one can to protect the environment
3. Health – reflecting concerns for the effects that products can have on one’s health and the health of one’s family. This dimension is increasingly linked to environment.
4. Feel Good – an aspiration towards enhancing personal and individual well-being a dimension which emphasizes the fact that the Positive Consumption trend is not about denying oneself pleasure
5. Ethics and ethical behavior – a preference for ethical business and an increasing sensitivity to the collective responsibility we have to ensure that companies do business in an ethical way.

Marketing often addresses these dimensions separately. But consumers will increasingly look for products and services which satisfy all five aspirations.

How they prioritize the importance of the green facet may depend on several factors such as product availability, pricing, state of mind or what’s in the press. Copenhagen, which brings green issues to the front page, will impact these priorities. But brands should bear in mind that consumers will be increasingly concerned by all facets of Positive Consumption.

This also means that brands will be expected to be sincere about being green. The transparency that exists today as a result of the dynamic of influence on the internet, for example through blogging and social networks, could cost them dearly if they underestimate the intelligence of the consumer.

Nick Aster: How do US and European and BRIC consumers differ on this issue?

Our Annual Scan of Consumer Evolution and New Trends program (ASCENT) reveals some interesting evolution. It is based on a 500 question survey administered to over 30 000 respondents in the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the US and the BRIC countries: Brazil, Russia, India and China. This represents over 1 billion consumers, or about one third of consumers in the world and about two thirds of consumption power.

Firstly, the desire to do something to help protect the environment has been on the increase in the US. In 2004, only 27% of American consumers agreed that they shared this desire. Today, over 40% do. However, the corresponding figure for the five European markets is over 56%.

Environmental concerns are high in Europe particularly France where 59% of consumers feel that their shopping habits can affect the environment. In the developing BRIC markets, we might be surprised at how important green issues are, they are often linked to a pragmatic view on consumption where recycling and repairing are still a common part of consumption habits. The Brazilians are very engaged and show high concern for the environment, in India and China there is a traditional preference for natural products and a high degree of sensitivity to health related issues, as is the case in Russia. In addition to this, the wealthy segments of these markets will become eco-trendsetters and will increasingly use eco-friendly goods as a way to distinguish themselves.

Beyond the “green” topic, the other dimensions of the Positive Consumption trend are also visible. Here are a few examples:

1) Social responsibility shows a very positive dynamic in the US. Today 55% of American consumers say they wish to contribute to society, against only 41% in 2006. 46% believe that their consumption habits can change society.

2) Regarding health concerns, 70% of the consumers in the US now say they need to look at what products are made of and show concern for the effect of products on health. This figure has been rising steadily since 2002, when just 56% did. However, this figure is higher still in Europe at 80%.

3) The Feel Good factor or Wellbeing is likely to remain important at a global level. However, the consumers’ interest for these issues will evolve in different ways according to the local context. In mature markets, consumers will be looking forward to a more active form of Wellbeing, notably through sport. Consumers in emerging markets will be more eager to let go and adopt more passive relaxed forms of self-care.

Nick Aster: Do you think that companies have a responsibility to help educate consumers on more sustainable choices? Could they use this education as a way to start introducing more sustainable products and services?

Yes, and yes. Today, companies still tend to deal with sustainability as a negative issue, there is a bit of a “comply or suffer hellfire” tonality about it all. The result is that consumers are often told what not to do, they feel they’re being talked down to and therefore switch off. Consumers are not going to stop consuming over night, they still need to buy, and they still want to buy. However they will look more and more to the brands that make it easy for them to make their consumption choices count in a positive way, the brands that make them feel good about themselves

How can companies do this? By not asking consumers to trade off efficiency and performance for the sake of the environment and by giving them products that respond to their desire to be green, to feel good about themselves, to be ethical and socially engaged as well.

Here are just two examples of green solutions to everyday issues:

1) In Strasbourg, France, there is a new plan where the town authorities are selling off prime development land directly to consumer groups who have environmentally friendly collective residence project. The more eco-friendly the building projects are, the less they pay for the land. This answers community responsibility, social engagement and environmental issues.

2) In many European cities, a free bike rental service is proving extremely successful, showing that consumers are responding to such community responsibility and environmental initiatives and that they are happy to help the environment once a solution is extended to them.

Nick Aster: What do you do, personally, to have a smaller footprint on the earth, and to better society?

Running a global business requires a lot of air travel, which is not environmentally friendly. So I try and maximize the use of travel, for example through combining client meetings with conferences in the same trip. I also pay attention to airlines’ passenger carbon offsetting schemes, to offset the impact of my and the team’s journeys. In Paris, I am also a keen user of the Vélib public bicycle rental programme and use public transport whenever I can. There are also the small everyday gestures, using the recycling bin and service that are provided by the town council, switching to low consumption light bulbs, putting a sweater on when its cold instead of turning up the heat, using reusable shopping bags… we are constantly reminded that no gesture is too small if enough people make it!

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of has grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.

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