Do U.S. Consumers Have Green Fatigue?

In February 2010, Burson-Marsteller released what seemed like a green marketers’ dream report. Their second annual Corporate Social Responsibility Perceptions survey results indicated that despite the recession, the vast majority of consumers said that social responsibility is important to them, regardless of the industry. More than half said that a brand that supports a cause would tip the scales between two similar products, and 38% plan to spend the same or more in 2010 on products or services from socially responsible companies than in 2009.

So how, then, do we explain the falling sales of green products and the recent results of the Green Gauge Global report from GfK Roper Consulting indicating consumers are losing their enthusiasm for environmentally-friendly products? Evidently simply offering a green product isn’t enough anymore.AdAge reports that sales of green cleaners have dropped while eco-nonfriendly bottled water sales have risen. Since so many consumers are concerned about social responsibility, why would they turn away from green products? Although consumers want to support brands with a cause, true brand loyalty not only goes deeper than that, but saving the environment itself is a hard sell, especially in the U.S. The Green Gauge Global report ranks the U.S. as the second-most “environmentally cynical” nation in the world – 24th out of 25 countries surveyed (36,000 consumers worldwide).

The report further shows that U.S. consumers consider green products to be too expensive, less effective, and don’t necessarily believe that they are any better for the environment than other products. Only 62% believe that climate change is a serious issue. All of these factors amount to what the director of the study, Timothy Kenyon, calls, “green fatigue.”

With so many green products flooding the market, U.S. consumers are becoming more discriminating. It’s not enough for a product to be green, it has to be effective, competitively priced, and the company itself must live green principles. AdAge suggests that—after a lower price—one of the strongest propositions for green marketing is to let your company’s inner green shine through, and product sales will follow – especially in a global market. Americans may be tougher green consumers, but there are many in other countries who still embrace green products wholeheartedly.

It’s a shame that eco-friendly products are struggling in a country with one of the largest greenhouse gas emission outputs, but GfK recommends that global green marketers learn to adapt. They identify five categories of green consumers, from barely green, to diehard evergreen, and caution against trying to use a single marketing message to fit all. Although some green products have seen a dip in sales, the same shakeout that happens whenever the market is glutted by a trend will play out. In this case, true green companies with quality products at a reasonable price who understand their audience and use targeted marketing, will most likely prevail in the long term.

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at and @anewell3p on Twitter.

4 responses

  1. Sad, but not surprising.

    After the first blush of the novelty of ‘being’, one inevitably settles into a more traditional brand comparison.

    We.. consumers… are basically quite selfish.

    And resting on tired laurels and failing to get heads around the concept of ‘end benefit’ that is a little closer to home was always going to separate those with a genuine idea from those seeking to paint a bandwagon.

  2. “Only 62% believe that climate change is a serious issue.”

    In the face of the well-funded barrage of disinformation about global warming, as well as media gloom about US attitudes, 62% seems more like a reassuring number, then an “only”.

    ‘Fully 62% believe that climate change is a serious issue.’

  3. Count me in on the “don’t necessarily believe that green products are better for the environment.” There are a few trusted companies (Ecover comes to mind) but nearly everything I see is greenwash. The futility of trying to “market” our way to sustainability is visible in the “re-usable bag” trend, which is nothing if not marketable. Plastic bags are awful litter, but they’re not a resource problem. You use more fossil fuels getting out of your parking spot than you save by avoiding a plastic bag at CVS. It’s not that it’s not helping, it’s just that it’s helping by such an embarrassingly small amount.

    Consumers have wised up to the fact that green products are incremental (and possibly insignificant) improvements in a structural problem that is so massive it defies conceptualization. We don’t even know what we’re trying to avoid when we buy “green” products! More often than not it’s toxic chemicals, which are not an environmental problem- they’re a public health problem. I’d wager a beer that 19 out of 20 “green” products cannot credibly say they provide a substantial greenhouse gas reduction over their competitors. And for the other 5%, NOT BUYING them would surely provide a greater reduction still.

    It was folly for the environmental movement to recourse to marketing gimmickry. “Buy Less” is infinitely greener a slogan than “buy green,” but try selling it to Wal-mart.

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