green consumer backlashConsumer behavior is pushing buyers to reject green products. The majority of consumers believe that the prices are high, the products are inferior, and that being green is feminine.  Consumers want green products that emphasize the benefits of their use more than their environmental appeal and they want them at the same quality and price as mainstream products.

by Carol Pierson Holding, President, Holding Associates

Green attitudes are up, but green behavior is down.

Several studies have just been released that illuminate the attitudes and behavior of consumers. First, the depressing news from a New York Times article – “As Consumers Cut Spending, ‘Green’ Products Lose Allure.”

The original independent companies like 7th Generation and Method are seeing modest increases after a decline in 2009, but the mass consumer goods companies — the ones who could really move the market — are doing so badly that in some cases, their environmental brands are being pulled off the market. For example, sales for SC Johnson’s Nature’s Source Scrubbing Bubbles dropped 71% in the past year. Arm & Hammer Essentials cleaners and laundry detergent are no longer being produced for the United States market, less than three years after they were introduced.

I was flummoxed. All the studies I’d been seeing reported consumer attitudes were becoming more green. Doesn’t behavior follow attitudes? Isn’t that what advertising is supposed to do, change attitudes so that buying behavior will change too?

Luckily, my partner majored in sociology and told me flat out, no, that’s not how it works. In fact, behavior changes attitudes and values.

Which is why I was so interested in OgilvyEarth’s study of green consumers that showed why “Green Marketing Is Failing to Motivate Mainstream America.” This study confirmed that attitudes are changing for the better. In fact “82% of Americans have good green intentions,” but only “16% are dedicated to fulfilling these intentions.” This coming from a unit of advertising giant Oglivy & Mather!

Most disturbing are the findings that existing green marketing is either irrelevant or even alienating to most Americans. The study asserts that, “Half of Americans think the green and environmentally friendly products are marketed to ‘Crunchy Granola Hippies’ or ‘Rich Elitist Snobs’ rather than ‘Everyday Americans.’” In other words, the very messages intended to change attitudes could be creating a backlash.

The OglivyEarth study further frightened me with its findings on why those who believe in green buy non-green products. They believe that prices for environmental products are higher (they are) and product performance is inferior (which, in my experience, for the most part, is still true).

In addition, some scary social assumptions are creeping into the US environmental zeitgeist:

  • A belief that being green is feminine and therefore not for males,
  • A retreat to the comfort of ignorance in the face of guilt-inducing photos of dying polar bears, and
  • The complexity of knowing how to be green.

What scares me is that non-green behavior is beginning to drive mainstream attitudes away from green in order to rationalize…non-green behavior. Attitudes following behavior.

Those 16% hardcore environmentalists will always buy products from 7th generation – even if they are inferior and cost way more. But to achieve real change, we have to figure out how to motivate the mainstream to buy green.

They are willing, but only if the products are the same in quality and price — and the advertising focuses on those benefits and not solely environmental. [See =Green Marketing Not Over, Just Misdirected] After all, environmentalism might be a value we all hold, but the dominant value will always be doing what’s best for our own family. And spending more money for scratchy toilet paper is not what’s best.

This post originally appeared on CSRHub. Reprinted with permission.

© 2011, Carol Pierson Holding. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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  • Jim Torti, Ph.D.

    As a company devoted entirely to creating a new sustainable material product, I agree that the challenging tide of consumer experience and perceptions are correct and should be addressed like any other competitive product/brand.

    We have found that our product must have a reason for being ‘different, better and special’ first- and that ‘green’ attributes are embedded in the product offering which must solve problems, create opportunities and advantages for the end user. ‘Green’ alone cannot be a prime selling point for the product if it does not accomplish something that gives it a real reason for being.

  • Patrick Comer


    I couldn’t agree more with the point that consumer buying behavior does not seem to be following “greened-up” attitudes. Perhaps the problem lies in our assumption that consumers are now educated about green-ness and have arrived at the point that they should be filling their homes and lives with green stuff. Perhaps the problem is our marketing approach.

    I will continue to believe that consumers make decisions based on perceived value and, when there is conflict or misunderstanding between two or more points of a buying decision, they will always default to products and services that are familiar and that seem to be in their family’s best “bang for the buck” interests. To be effective, buying green can’t be about the environment, the earth, the future, our grandchildren, or any other fleeting, ephemeral, or high-and-mighty, save-the-earth movement. It has to be what makes sense to people when faced with choices about what to buy that’s best for their families and that helps them stretch the dollars they seem to have in so small an amount.

    Patrick Comer
    Sensible Science in Service to Business Leadership