Consumers Don’t Warm to Eco-Friendly Products

Last week, the Federal Trade Commission proposed changes in the “Green Guides” it issues to marketers “to help them avoid making misleading environmental claims.” Maybe it should have issued complementary rules that require consumers to care more about eco-friendly products in the first place. Two surveys released last month find many consumers lacking enthusiasm for buying green goods, particularly if (as people suspect is typically the case) they’d have to pay a premium for them.

It’s not that consumers are indifferent to the environment or disinclined to hold companies responsible for helping to preserve it. Rather, they’ll let themselves be easily deterred from taking the personal step of buying green goods. Successive pages of the Green Gauge Global report from GfK Roper Consulting encapsulate the problem for green-product marketers. First, we read that 71 percent of respondents in North America believe “It is important that companies take environmentally responsible actions.” (So far, so good for eco-concern.) On the next page, though, we find 66 percent agreeing, “The environmentally friendly alternatives for many of the products I use are too expensive.”
A similar perception emerges from a survey by Marcal Small Steps, a unit of the Marcal household-paper company that specializes in products made from recycled materials. (Kiwi, a parenting magazine that focuses on green living, was a partner in this study.) Conducted among female heads of household age 25-54 who regularly buy household paper products, this poll found 75 percent believing “environmentally friendly paper products are priced higher than conventional paper products.” Asked why they don’t buy eco-friendly paper goods more often, 62 percent said it’s because “They have higher prices.” Sixty-three percent said the same when asked about “household products.”

Speaking of green household products, 30 percent of the Marcal respondents said they “do not have a coupon for them ever/very often” and 27 percent that their store “does not put them on sale ever/very often.” One gets a sense of the relative importance of price and environmental virtue from a pair of numbers in this survey: While 74 percent of respondents rated price as “extremely important” in their purchases of household paper goods, just 15 percent accorded that status to “environmentally friendly” as a factor.

Do consumers have exaggerated notions about the expense of eco-friendly products? “Absolutely,” says M.J. Jolda, svp of marketing for Marcal Small Steps. “There are green products that don’t necessarily cost more, and we are living proof, in a big category. Still, our survey confirms that consumers have been conditioned to believe that if it’s better for the environment, it must be worse for their wallet.”

A walk through the supermarket tends to reinforce that perception. “We’ve gotten to the point where you have sections of supermarkets carved out for specialty eco items, where products tend to be priced higher than their traditional counterpart,” says Jolda. “With Marcal Small Steps, we made a very conscious decision to remain in the aisle with traditional paper products made from trees, because we want to make it clear that consumers don’t have to pay more for environmentally friendly paper products and also make it easy for consumer to find us and compare us to the traditional brands that they purchase. Our products—bath tissue, paper towels, napkins and facial tissue—typically sell for less than traditional paper goods which are made by cutting down trees.”

It’s not simply that consumers are cheap (though they may be, especially these days). “Our survey results also indicate that consumers are genuinely confused when it comes to green claims on products, so it’s no wonder they focus on tangibles like price,” says Jolda. “‘Green’ is a really grey area, and we think it’s the responsibility of brands to step up to educate consumers about their products’ environmental impact and how it relates to the consumer.” She mentions that Marcal Small Steps has deployed its labeling to help make clear what the brand does in this regard, adding an “Environmental Facts” panel to the front of the package. “Similar to popular nutrition-facts panels found on food products, the Environmental Facts label points out what does—and does not—go into Marcal Small Steps products,” she adds.

Of course, with all due respect to the planet, what consumers generally care most about is what the product will do for them and their families. Marketers of green goods are apt to go awry if they focus exclusively on what they’ll do for the environment. “The most effective way to increase green-product adoption is to communicate the personal benefit and then deliver on this benefit,” says Tim Kenyon, director of GfK Roper Consulting’s Green Gauge study. “The Green Gauge research suggests that this is true in the U.S. and around the world. Two levers that marketers can pull are saving money and protecting health. Of course, this also exists within the framework of providing a product that delivers on quality as well. Most consumers are not willing to compromise for an environmentally friendly product that they feel is inferior.”

That’s a problem when, as Green Gauge polling in the U.S. found, one-third of consumers believe the eco-friendly products don’t work as well as the “regular” ones. Similarly, when the Marcal polling asked respondents why they don’t choose eco-friendly household products more often, 21 percent said, “They do not perform as well as conventional products.”

It likely doesn’t help matters for marketers of green products that global warming has become the dominant concern of environmentalists, shunting aside more immediate matters like air and water pollution. As Kenyon remarks, “Consumers respond to issues that they can touch, feel and see—air pollution, water pollution, oil spills, industrial accidents, etc. It is harder for consumers to have a tactile or sensory response to global warming or carbon offsets.” And that has important implications for how green brands ought to shape their messages. “Our research suggests marketers should focus on immediate and tangible benefits, such as promoting energy efficiency, water conservation and the recyclability of their products/packaging,” Kenyon says.

Amid much doomsday rhetoric about the fate of the planet, it’s harder to make consumers feel their individual actions will make any difference for good or ill. Here again, a tangible focal point is helpful—as are simplicity and clarity. “Green consumer-packaged-goods marketers must find ways to quantify their impact and explain it in simple terms, or risk skepticism or irrelevance,” says Jolda.

She adds that Marcal Small Steps devised a “trees saved” metric that appears on its Internet homepage, “tied right to our unit sales.” The point is to persuade consumers that their own choices do indeed make a difference—and to “demonstrate how the sum of small actions makes for powerful change,” as Jolda puts it.

“In our category, a family of four can save two trees this year just by switching to bath tissue and paper towels made from recycled materials instead of virgin trees,” says Jolda. “If every U.S. household switched one traditional product for one made with 100 percent recycled paper just one time, a million trees would be saved. We tell that story a lot.”

However green marketers state their case, the claims probably won’t resonate as strongly until the economy gets better. Inevitably, the downturn affects many consumers’ attitudes about the relative urgency of environmental issues. Fifty-two percent of the Green Gauge respondents subscribed to the statement, “First comes economic security, then we can worry about environmental problems.”