This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.
By Liz Gorman
After 20 years of surveying consumers on their attitudes about brands and their expectations of how companies should behave, our team at Cone Communications has managed to compile some interesting insights. Our Green Gap Trend Tracker research, now gets us a step closer to understanding the consumer mindset when it comes to purchasing, using and disposing of “green” products.
Before I get to the main takeaways from the research, here’s some background on the survey. It was conducted online in 2013 and included a demographically representative sample of 1,068 American adults, 18 years of age or older.
1. Consumers admit responsibility but don’t often follow through
More than two-thirds of consumers portray themselves as conscientious purchasers who consider the environmental impacts of what they are buying. Some of the green products they purchase require that they use or dispose of a product in a certain way in order to achieve the full eco benefit.
Take cold water laundry detergent, for instance.
Consumers may purchase this product thinking it will help them reduce their energy consumption by not using hot water. But when probed, we found that only 33% of consumers said they actually use green products in the way that achieves the intended environmental benefit.
The same is true of disposing of eco-preferred products, with just 42% saying they are always or sometimes inclined to dispose of these products properly, whether through recycling, composting or other methods to keep the used product out of the landfill.
2. Excuses, excuses: why consumers aren’t closing the loop
I don’t want to diss consumers who purchase green products, but they sure seem to have a lot of excuses for not following through on disposing of a product as intended.
Let’s start with their biggest obstacle: 33% say they don’t have access to the right resources such as curbside recycling or public recycling bins. I get that, and it underscores a major flaw with our national recycling system – there isn’t one. Recycling is a community-by-community service, not a nationwide initiative.
Going a bit further down the list of excuses, about 20% of consumers say that they don’t know how to dispose of a green product properly. I’ll cut them some slack on this, too, because some products, like CFL bulbs, require that a person research locations to find where the used bulbs can be taken for recycling. And that gets complicated. Compostable items can also be confusing for consumers who don’t have a compost pile in their backyard or curbside service.
So where do they put these compostable items?
I’m guessing the garbage can.
But it’s even more puzzling that about 18% of consumers who buy green products simply don’t bother disposing of the used items as intended. They cite not having enough time or just not caring enough to do it. Oh well.
The good news is that 30% of green shoppers say they always dispose of their products properly, and most consumers (85%) agree that companies should do more to educate them about the best way to dispose of green products for the greatest environmental benefit. For green brands, this is opportunity knocking.
3. Consumers say they understand green claims, but…
We have been asking consumers the same question since 2008: When you see a product advertised as “green” or “environmentally friendly,” what do you believe it means? Consistently, about two-thirds say the product has either a positive (beneficial) or neutral impact on the environment. Only about one-quarter selected the more appropriate responses, that the product has a lighter impact than comparable products (22%) or earlier versions (2%). This suggests many consumers don’t fully realize that every product has an impact on the environment, however “green” that product may be.
4. Motives behind the purchases
When asked why they purchase environmentally preferred products, consumers look inward to their motivations. They say the most important driver is their belief that green products are healthier for them, their families and their communities. The second most important reason given is that the green product will save them money, such as reducing energy or water use.
And another motivator is that they feel they are helping to preserve the environment for future generations. Not surprisingly, consumers are driven by what’s good for them: my health, my money and my contribution to the world.
5. Honesty rules over perfection
We’ve surveyed consumers repeatedly on their perceptions and expectations of companies when it comes to environmental marketing or green messaging. Less than half of consumers surveyed said they trust companies to tell them the truth. This implies that a larger portion of consumers are skeptical of the environmental claims companies are making, which is probably why 71% of consumers wish companies would do a better job of helping them understand the environmental terms they use to talk about their products and services.
Green marketers out there should take note and seize the opportunity to provide clear and simple-to-understand messaging around environmental claims. And keep in mind that the majority of consumers trust brands more when they are honest and transparent about their environmental efforts and own up to their imperfections.
Perhaps, this is the most important takeaway of all.
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