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Green consumerism, 2020 style

May 26, 2020

The following guest blog was authored by Joel Makower, Chairman and Executive Editor of GreenBiz.

For more than a decade, I’ve been tracking and compiling surveys of U.S. consumers on a wide range of environmental issues for an annual article like this one, typically published in the runup to annual Earth Day celebrations. (Here’s the first one, done in 2007 and the most recent, from 2019.) It’s always a daunting challenge: sorting through mind-numbing polling data to assess what’s changing and what’s not.

I’d also planned in this year’s installation to revisit my book, The Green Consumer, published 30 years ago this month, and to reflect on what has happened over that time and where we are headed.

Suffice to say, all that’s up for grabs. It seems there’s a pandemic going around, and that’s altering the course of all of our perspectives and priorities, including when and how we spend our discretionary income. So, almost everything is changing, or at least uncertain.

Or is it?

The fact is, since I began tracking the attitudes of so-called green consumers, in 1989, consumer attitudes have stayed relatively steady through good times and bad: recessions and wars, Democratic and Republic administrations, rising and ebbing concerns about climate change, and 9/11 — not to mention all the other changes we’ve seen in technology, shopping and life in general.

Through all that, the story line has remained stubbornly consistent: Consumers overwhelmingly say they are concerned about such things as clean air, clean water and a changing climate. They say they want to make environmentally and socially responsible choices when they shop, and buy from companies and brands perceived to be “good,” however that’s understood and defined.

But the products and brands they buy don’t change all that much. It seems we like what we like.

My own journey in this space has been somewhat fraught. Despite my early enthusiasm for the idea of consumers' voting with their dollars, I quickly became disillusioned with that promise, and more impressed with all that companies are doing to reduce waste, water, emissions, carbon intensity and toxicity. Perhaps ironically, all of those things make their products greener, if even they don't bother to make such claims. At one point, nearly a decade ago, I even suggested that green marketing, to the extent it was ever alive and well, was over.

Back in 1989, while I was writing The Green Consumer, there appeared the first-ever survey of U.S. consumers on environmental shopping, by the Michael Peters Group, a long-since-defunct consultancy based in New York and London. That survey found that nearly nine out of 10 American consumers — 89 percent — said they were concerned about the environmental impacts of the things they purchased. Nearly as many — 78 percent — said they would be willing to pay up to 5 percent extra for the privilege of buying a product packaged in recyclable or biodegradable materials.

Of course, we know well that only a small fraction of Americans regularly seeks out and buys green products — those that are less toxic, more energy efficient, less wasteful, etc. — or can identify (m)any green brands up and down the aisles of nearly any retailer.

Truly understanding green shopping habits is tough, given that there are no standard definitions of green products, green packaging, green brands or green consumers. That makes it pretty easy for both producers and consumers to make such claims with minimal risk — and creates lots of room for confusion and cynicism on everyone's part.

So, where are we? Below are some of the highlights of the latest research on green attitudes and habits. Note that with only a few exceptions, these polls and surveys were made months before the coronavirus pandemic set in, meaning that consumers were likely expecting that tomorrow would look more or less like today. As we now know, that’s all up for grabs, too.

As a result, all of these surveys are subject to further scrutiny, once the worst of the pandemic is behind us. They may still be accurate, but citizens’ environmental concerns equally could have increased or declined during the age of contagion.

With that as preamble, and to see what I found, click here.

Taking care of business…

Circularity 20 Digital: We've just announced a free, half-day digital convening focusing on the circular economy, on May 19. Join us for interviews and panels that will inform and empower you to adopt circular economy principles that increase resilience, address supply-chain risk, respond to shifting consumer demand and unlock new business opportunities. Learn more and register here.

Webcasts galore: We're ramping up our digital offerings later this month and through May and beyond, including these two upcoming webcasts at the end of April:

  • On April 28, we'll be releasing our biennial State of the Profession report, focusing on trends and metrics in corporate sustainability departments: salaries, headcounts, remits and more. Join GreenBiz VP John Davies, sustainability headhunter Ellen Weinreb and LinkedIn sustainability lead Peggy Brannigan for what I expect will be a fascinating conversation, especially given the current climate. To participate, register here.

  • On April 30, I'll be hosting a roundtable conversation with the GreenBiz analysts who collectively program our fall VERGE conference: Katie Fehrenbacher on transportation and mobility, Sarah Golden on energy, Lauren Phipps on circular economy and Jim Giles on sustainable food systems and carbon removal. Join us by registering here.

By the way, both of these and most subsequent webcasts will feature speakers via video, not just audio. 'Tis a new era.

Finally, we've been ramping up our coverage of the pandemic and especially its implications for corporate sustainability and the clean economy — more than 20 stories so far by our terrific roster of writers and analysts, and counting. I encourage you to check them all out here.

Disclaimer: Guest blogs represent the opinion of the writers and may not reflect the policy or position of the Northeast Recycling Council, Inc.


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