The elusive green consumer

I’d like to believe that we can shop our way to be a better world.

It’s unlikely.

If our economy is going to become more just and sustainable, change will have to come from the top down, not from the bottom up.

This roll of toilet paper helps explain why.

Called Moka, this bathroom tissue comes from a company called Cascades, which is headquartered in Montreal. It’s made from 100% recycled paper, and it has a lower carbon footprint than conventional toilet paper. Moka costs less to manufacture than ordinary white toilet paper and uses less bleach. And it works fine. Trust me–the company sent me a sample roll.

“It’s beneficial for us, for consumers and for the environment,” says Isabelle Faivre, US Marketing Director for Cascades.

The trouble is, you can’t buy Moka in a store.

That’s because Moka is being, er, rolled out exclusively in the away-from-home market. That is, it’s being sold to distributors who supply office buildings, schools, colleges, hospitals, restaurants and hotels. “Companies have that need to look green, to make them feel better about themselves,” says Faivre. But consumers aren’t ready to accept off-color bathroom tissue.

Cascades knows this because the company introduced beige napkins made from recycled stock in the late 1990s. They’re common now in places like Starbucks and McDonald’s, and they represent about 23% of Cascades’ institutional napkin business, up from less than 10% a decade ago.

But consumers aren’t buying them. “They’re a very, very small part of the retail market,” Faivre says.

People tell market researchers that they prefer environmentally-friendly products. But more than twenty years after my friend Joel Makower wrote The Green Consumer (with John Elkington and Julia Hailes),  American homes, cars and bellies have all grown bigger faster than the the much-touted LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) market.

Much has changed since Joel wrote his book, but as he notes in this 2010 essay:

One thing hasn’t changed all that much: green consumers. That is, there don’t seem to be that many more today than in 1990, in terms of people making significant changes to their shopping and consuming habits in ways that move markets toward greener products and services, never mind actually “saving the earth.”

Why? People are habitual. They’re busy. They’re stretched for money. Presumably they mean well when they  tell market researchers that they care about the planet, but when they are pushing a cart down a supermarket aisle, they’re not thinking about climate change or biodiversity; they’re thinking about getting home  to get dinner on the table.

Again, Joel put it well:

Consumers, for all their good intentions, don’t really want to change. They want what they want — and what they feel they need and deserve — with little regard for where it comes from, how it’s made, how it’s used, and its impacts throughout its life-cycle.

To be sure, here and there is evidence to the contrary — brands like Newman’s Own or Patagonia that are built on goodness or green cred,  green insurgents like Stonyfield Farm and Seventh Generation and Honest Tea, the viral appeal of Carrotmob (See my blogpost, A Carrotmob, not a stick) and the conscientious shoppers who pull out their Good Guide iPhone app before making a purchase. But they are exceptions.

European shoppers tend to be more conscientious about their consumption but even there progress is fitful. Tesco, the British supermarket chain that has embraced an array of sustainability projects, recently said it would drop plans to attach carbon-footprint labels to its products because developing them proved expensive and time-consuming. You can be certain that if British shoppers had demanded the labels, they’d remain.

Consumers don’t want to make even small sacrifices to be green.  Pepsico’s Frito-Lay division pulled most of the biodegradable packaging it used for Sun Chips snacks because consumers complained they were too noisy. SC Johnson has found consumer resistant to concentrated refills for Windex. Method sells style, cool technology or convenience, downplaying its considerable environmental benefits.

Some companies have even found that touting  environmental benefits turns off  consumers. Hewlett Packard uses recycled content in some printers, but keeps quiet about it because consumers mistakenly thought that the “greener” printers would not perform as well. This is the opposite of greenwashing; call it greenhushing.

This isn’t a reason to despair. It’s a reason to focus on approaches to change that have a better chance of success.

As Toby Webb, founder of Ethical Corporation, wrote recently:

ALL the research shows, when you cut through it, that it will be systems change at the ‘top end’ that delivers sustainability at scale: By companies, in R&D, design, takeback and product makeup, and by governments, which will have to be pushed by alliances of companies and others to help support these changes.

The good news: It may well prove easier to focus on 500 to 1,000 global companies, and the startups that aim to disrupt them, than it is to change the mindset of 300 million Americans or 7 billion consumers around the world.

Engaged employees can change companies. So can pressure campaigns by activists. Forward-thinking CEOs can, of course, have a big impact.

Politics matters, a lot. Governments that price carbon will have a deeper and longer-lasting impact than shoppers who read carbon labels.

I hope I’m wrong about consumers. Maybe  younger consumers, especially, will  vote with their pocketbooks for greener products, ethical companies and a more just, sustainable world. I just don’t see it happening–yet.

Comments

  1. An important distinction is highlighted by the famous saying : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_road_to_hell_is_paved_with_good_intentions

    Numerous Green consumers – or individuals who would label themselves such do harbour an inner conscience regarding the world and how it is affected by our actions. The difficulty is translating these intentions into concrete action, particularly, when the action of the individual seems insignificant in the face of the greater problem.

    By drawing attention to the specific result clearly progress can be made. Treat an animal well and it does not prevent the uncaring cruelty of the world. But the animal in question benefits. And that is a motivator.

    Put some litter in a recycling bin and some small patch of earth is saved from this litter, and perhaps en-mass a tree and by extension a forest benefits.

    The consumer is rewarded by three things a) personal justification, b) the value and right of sharing their actions socially ( conservancy needs to “go viral” ) and c) thirdly by an awareness of the consequence chain that they can thereby initiate.

    Perhaps this can be exemplified by hijacking another aphorism – Give a man an eco-toilet roll and you will save the twig of a tree – but teach him how to promote that act and show him the consequences and you will save a forest.

    Surely this is one sense in which the “blogosphere” and social networking can be a tool for benefit. And perhaps this is why we need to score some form of Green-Klout, have #Green followers and be given the trivia of Google+ acknowledgement.

    @kWIQly I suspect my direct impact will be minimal, but I trust that – a rolling stone gathers momentum – if I may adopt another aphorism to my purpose.

  2. Marc,
    Captured brilliantly! I couldn’t agree more with your findings. All the more reason to work with progressive companies that have the passion and mandates to motivate their employees to engage.

    Thank you for your stellar work.
    Susan
    @susanmcp1

  3. “It may well prove easier to focus on 500 to 1,000 global companies, and the startups that aim to disrupt them, than it is to change the mindset of 300 million Americans or 7 billion consumers around the world….Engaged employees can change companies. So can pressure from activists.”

    I could not agree more. Your point is clearly shared by activist groups like Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network that focus their pressure on key corporations and industries.

  4. I couldn’t agree more that we can’t buy our way into a more sustainable world. But isn’t the bigger problem that even if consumers were to buy these green products, the planet still wouldn’t notice the difference?

    • Gernot, I think that depends on scale. If consumers around the world bought only recycled paper–if that become the norm–you would have a robust stream of inputs and outputs that might be big enough for the planet to notice. If consumers switched to a more vegetarian diet, I think there would be an impact on deforestation and GHG emissions. Again, though, this would require massive changes in mindset and behavior.

  5. Good morning Marc and thank you for yet, another excellent post.

    In February of 2008 I wrote a post for Sustainable is Good titled “The Cost versus Price of Sustainability” and I am sorry to say not much has changed. In that post I was critical of companies for not sharing (with consumers) the substantial savings of manufacturing, and shipping green, concentrated products such as laundry detergent. Instead many traditionally non-green companies saw it as an opportunity to increase profitabaility and then wondered why consumers aren’t “buying it”.

    Green consumers are smart and they don’t like wasting anything, especially money. Selling to them can be challanging but a few basic rules apply:
    1.) educate the consumer and don’t assume they understand why a green product is green
    2.) offer real value, not just a token savings combined with a large dose of guilt
    3.) communicate the savings in a simple, effective way and avoid worn out eco slogans. “SAVE 30%” is much more likely to get attention than “saving the earth one ____ at a time”

    Yes green cosnumers can be elusive as you stated but I also think most observers will agree companies, generally, have not done a great job of marketing to them.

    Dennis Salazar
    Salazar Packaging, Inc.
    Globe Guard Products

  6. “But consumers aren’t ready to accept off-color bathroom tissue. Consumers don’t want to make even small sacrifices to be green.”
    How often do you want to tell this again and again? The fact that cosumers are not ready is no wonder, and should lead us to the level, where we find answeres. Have a look at the past 40 years on advertising and marketing industry and how much effort was spent into this. I am not surprised that the whole society is “mediated”, means hooked on consumerism. The western lifestyle brought immense economy growth. And now you want to switch off the light of consumerism, as it was before? You have to understand people the first place, and not marketing, You have to look on how to reach a deeper level of understanding. But changing the believesystem of man takes too much time, which is running out…
    Anyway, the need for change is ahead with the three big circles of crisis, which will be the energy or petrol of change for all of us: Climate, Ressources, Finance World…

  7. I once worked at J&J’s consumer research labs in Montreal. We had a similar consumer experience: we had developped an amazing sanitary protection napkin made out of peat moss. It was much more absorbant and thiner than anything on the market. It was also made from natural ingredients, chemical free and bactericide. After years of research, the project was dropped. Consumers didn’t like the product: one of the reasons was it that it wasn’t white enough. Another was it absorbed too well!

    • Thanks, Francois, that is really interesting. I’m thinking that over time we can find ways to change the mindset of consumers so that they embrace greener products, but how to do so at scale remains unclear.

  8. Thomas Campbell says:

    It’s really a Catch-22. Until green products become more affordable and competitive with the prices of the mass-produced, non-green products, the majority won’t adopt them…especially in times of economic downturn. Until larger numbers begin buying them, green products have little chance of becoming more affordable and competing with those non-green products for the best pricepoint in the marketplace. As one of my co-workers in the office stated, “The first thing I think when I see a product that calls itself ‘green’ is: How much more are they charging me for that?” And generally, he’s right. Fix that problem, and you have a chance to succeed.

  9. Perhaps consumers just don’t like the idea of using a product from recycled paper on their faces (napkins). That doesn’t mean they’d have a problem wiping their _sses with it. I lived in Germany for over a decade. Grey toiletpaper made out of recycled paper was the market leader there. There were no tissues on the market made out of recycled paper, and diapers made out of recycled paper flopped when we launched them. Those products were perceived as unhygienic. That doesn’t mean Germans don’t buy green products; it means they felt there was a better reason NOT to use those particular products than the environmental reason TO buy them. Small bottles of concentrated cleaning product don’t sell because consumers feel like they are getting less for their money. I’m not even going to get into the example of the sanitary napkin made out of peat moss. Do you really have to think hard to imagine that a woman doesn’t want peat moss touching a certain area of the body?

  10. ..what we need to do is make it more sustainable and more accessible to everyone Now sustainable is for the rich and famous and it should be for all human

  11. The investments in making toilet paper out of recycled paper (rather than trees) came from the Clean Water Act of 1972. Bleaching paper (to make it white) had high environmental costs, and collecting office paper (already bleached) for recycling was the result. In the 1980s, I called Erving Tissue in MA, to get them to be open about their recycled content. Talk about coming out of the closet. Try convincing a restaurant to put out a sign, “someone else ate off the plate before you”. When they finally experimented with it, the tissue paper mills sold recycled content under a separate label, and charged a premium over the price of the (same) product sold generically. The point is to see this from the investors point of view, not from the activists. Activists mean well but their point of view is like the loud tourist in the Amazon village.

  12. Is there any evidence that, after trying products purchased by institutional buyers, individual consumers become more comfortable buying those same products? That is, if individuals get used to using beige napkins or toilet paper at Starbucks or at work, will they realize that the product is identical other than color (assuming that’s true) and become more comfortable buying it?

    • I think that’s right–consumers do get introduced to greener products at work, and then they are prepared to buy them at home. It would be great to speed up this adoption process, though.

  13. Well written, sir.

    Seems to me each company that wants to have a big impact must consider how they can position their product to give the average consumer something they already want — rather than what the world needs…

  14. Joni Hanson Davis says:

    Marc,

    Thank you for the article and bringing up an important subject. I believe that there is indeed a green gap between what consumers say they want and what they actually do. But I believe that the most effective way to close this gap is to take a look at how products are marketed and what expectations we are setting for these products.

    I look at the toilet paper example in your article and by looking at the packaging I thought it looked like I was going to be rubbing sand paper on a very delicate area of my body. Where are the fluffy animals? Where are the sweet signs of nature? Where is the picture of clouds forming an image of soft, gentle and pillow-like?

    I truly believe that companies who make good decisions about how they manufacture their products, what materials they use, how they treat their employees, etc. should be rewarded highly for their actions. I believe that these attributes are the value proposition of the Gen Y generation and will be used to influence buying decisions and tip the consumer to the good brands over other brands that do not share these attributes. However, these factors are just that: they are attributes in a long list of attributes and that may be a big part of the problem.

    When I buy toilet paper, I want to know it is soft, it is going to get the job done, and make my children happy when they do their business. However, I am NOT going to buy it simply because it is going to save the earth.

    And, it is difficult for me, as a long time marketer, to wrap my head around the demographic of ‘green consumers’. In bridging the gap, we must think of all consumers as green consumers. As such, we must think about approaching it differently. The reasons why I should care, spend money or switch brands have to do more with personal reasons than the traditional ‘green’ messaging such as: save the earth or it will be destroyed or climate change will kill us all. That is a heavy message – it’s scary to most consumers who may not ever want to believe doomsday is near, or that we are causing it. Why not this message: The toilet paper (with the better packaging, please!!) is soft, effective and it won’t cause cancer because it doesn’t have chemical causing agents that are touching your skin. And it is made from recycled paper and has a low carbon footprint. (Disclaimer: I am not an expert on this type of toilet paper so I am using this as an example only.) As a consumer I might think, this is great toilet paper and I feel so good about buying it because it is doing great things for the environment.

    In your article you mentioned the Method brand. You state that they downplay their environmental benefits and I don’t think they downplay them as much as use them effectively. As a consumer, I would have to believe that my cleaning product, in this order, is effective, smells good (yes, I go for that), the packaging is appealing and, when choosing between Method and another brand, I will look to see which one would be healthier for my children as I wipe it on my counter top where my children eat every day. You may think it is downplaying, I think they have positioned these attributes wisely and successfully. Instead of leading with environmental benefits, they are used to tip the scale to buying their brand over other leading brands.

    We are all looking for the same result. But I believe that unless consumers demand better products, manufacturers won’t change on a large scale, or won’t change as quickly as we would like to see. Let’s give the consumers the information they need to change buying habits but let’s not forget traditional product marketing. Let’s make environmental or social benefits key attributes of all product marketing, but remember they are only a few in a long list. But, I believe that these attributes will tip the scale for the consumer when given equal choices.

    Thank you,
    Joni Hanson Davis
    CEO and Founder of Guud_is
    joni@guudis.com

  15. Marc and all, great article and comments.

    Allow me to take a slightly different look at the demand-side argument.

    While all comments on this mostly talked about how to change consumers’ preferences for different TYPES of products (greener, more sustainable, etc.), I still cannot help but to draw our attention to the issue of VOLUME and QUANTITY. The issue not just that consumers demand the wrong things, but they demand TOO MANY things.

    Product design and innovation like the toilet paper, as well as the top-down approach of greening companies cannot be a long-term solution. It will buy us a few more years of time, but until consumers decide to consume more modestly and do not equate that necessarily with a lower quality of life, we are not headed in the right direction. The only other solution out is dramatic technological innovation that can create products for less material than the products themselves (physically impossible nowadays).

    To the immediate counterargument that this is wishful thinking that consumers will change their behavior, I would agree that it will be extremely hard given how married many people are to the idea that materialistic necessity is a precondition for happiness. No matter how we look at it, however, when tomorrow’s consumer starts running into their natural limit (when resources have been so depleted that it affects prices and actual availability), things will change in the hard way. Given this forum’s prevailing preference for the top-down (make the corporations adapt) approach, as opposed to looking at ways to promote reduced consumption, there is little way to prevent this hard landing in the not too distant future.

    In this article, I discuss my point more at length, for anyone who is interested:

    “A Tale of Sheep and Monks – Why Even “Sustainable” Capitalism is Not The Answer” – http://wp.me/p24jhN-hO

    Looking forward to keeping up with the good posts, meanwhile.

    Thien Nguyen-Trung,
    Editor, GoodGeneration.org

  16. derwoodii says:

    Sadly we are consuming 1.25 planets earth’s already by 2030 it will be 2 plants earth’s.

    All economic growth is associated with making and so the rising levels of green-house gas emissions. GHG emissions will continue to rise until resource depletion intervenes and world economic collapse. There is little hope of political or industrial lead reachable alternatives to the burning of fossil fuels (coal oil) to ensure our rising quality of life and precious GDP.

    Ipso facto any mechanism introduced to lessen green-house gas emissions may only have the reverse effect of increasing Co2 output by the continuing and increasing world economic growth as we burn eat and waste what we have daily less of.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] The challenge for Dara and other companies and nonprofits is to get consumers to “vote with their dollars” for the planet whenever they go to the store. If only. People are busy. They’re not well-informed. They don’t believe that anthropogenic climate change is real. They are stretched for cash. They like big cars. They prefer meat to vegetables. And so forth. For these and many more reasons, if we want to curb global warming or protect biodiversity, I don’t think we’re going to make a lot of progress at the supermarket or drugstore checkout lines. [For more, see my blogpost, The Elusive Green Consumer] [...]

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