Motivating mainstream consumers to make sustainable choices



Mainstream consumers are complicated. They know just enough buzz words to make you think they know more than they do, and most don't actually go green to save the planet.

How do mainstream consumers ACTUALLY make decisions about which green products to buy? Suzanne Shelton, President and CEO of Shelton Group shared her insights at the Sustainable Brands '10 Conference, last week.

Green is Officially Mainstream

According to Eco Pulse 2010, a study of green consumer trends by Shelton Group, 64% of the population is now actively looking for green products. Most consumers start small, adopting easy-to-buy products such as home cleaning products (versus a hybrid car or a green home, which require a higher investment).

One of the main reasons for this behavioral shift is directly connected with the performance, quality and price: most green products are now directly competing with their non-green version, and this accessibility in terms of price and quality results in higher adoption rates. For instance, 1 in every 2 respondents found that green products are as good and effective as non-green products.

Most Consumers Know Less Than You Might Think They Do About What Constitutes Green

'The average consumer knows enough to go by a cocktail conversation,' says Suzanne Shelton, President and CEO of Shelton Group. 'For instance, when asked to name a green home feature in an open-ended question, half respondents wasn't able to come up with a single one.' This shows there is a big disconnect between businesses and consumers.

Another trend that was illuminated in the study, is there is a prevailing erroneous assumptions made among consumers around green economy related terms, such as 'organic' and 'natural.' Consumers believe that 'natural' is a regulated term, while 'organic' is just a word used by marketers to justify a premium price on a green product. The same applies when it comes to toxic chemicals. Consumers don't know how to discern harmful ingredients from naturally-occurring and good chemicals.

'Consumers complain that they see a lot of green products with 'green' everywhere, but they don't see anything about 'natural',' says Shelton.

Most People Don't Go Green to Save The Planet.

Information and facts is not enough to motivate people to go green. 'Studies show that we make decisions based on our emotional brain (and not the rational),' continues Shelton. 'This means that, if you want your consumers to go green, you have to appeal to their feelings, senses, perceptions, beliefs - FACTS ARE NOT ENOUGH.' So how do you go around this?

First, engage with the emotional brain and, only then, kick-in the rational argument. We don't like to believe we're buying based on our feelings and our emotions - businesses - and marketers - need to give us facts for people to hold on to.

'Another interesting fact that came up in Shelton's research is that 35% would be willing to give away their iPod to save the planet,' says Shelton. 'This means 65% wouldn't give away their mp3 player!'

Consumers say they want to do something about the environment (because that's the right thing to do), but when it comes to leaving their comfort zone or giving up on a benefit or on their life style, most people won't make the green decision. 'Never discount health, comfort, convenience, life style and beauty,' Shelton added. 'That stuff can make or break your campaign.'

Manufacturing Practices, Ingredients and Packaging are Key

Do you know how most consumers know if a product is green? The answer might surprise you:'They saw it on the packaging,' says Shelton. Most relate to certifications, labels and even advertising. A curious fact that came up on this study was that if consumers don't see a company as green, they won't buy the product, even if that product is green. (This perception can be misleading. Yesterday I had a great chat with an EPA representative and she mentioned that the line Green Works - by Clorox - is more environmentally sustainable than Sun Chips).

So, in the eyes of the consumer, how can a company be perceived as green? Respondents identified the following practices, in order: Recycling, no chemical waste, renewable energy, minimal product packaging and a sustainable product life cycle. But, when it comes to food, the criteria changes. Consumers look for food that contains no chemicals/preservatives, no additives or pesticides, and, ideally contains only natural ingredients.

The 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 of Buy: Price, Ingredients, Brand, Efficacy and Packaging

This is astonishing and very insightful. Note the placement of efficacy: it's the fourth criterion, and not the first or second as many would come to believe. But even here the no-size-fits-all mentality shows: when it comes to ingredients, people would pay the most for a product with the 'plant-derived ethanol, natural products.' But when it comes to food, it's all about endorsements versus ingredients or description.' All this data is very surprising,' says Shelton. 'For instance, for cosmetics, it's all about what kind of energy was used to make the product, and same applies to baby products!'

If you're grappling with what kind of description you should adopt when alluring to renewable energy use, go for specificity. For instance, Shelton's study identified that 'Manufactured with renewable energy' is less powerful than 'manufactured with wind power.'

As for best packaging, consider using descriptions such as 'made with naturally biodegradable materials.'

Green Communications: Be Transparent and Personable

'Only 6% of consumers believe companies say they're green because they actually believe in it,' goes Shelton. 'Most consumers see green as a marketing or a sales strategy.' Some of the feedback Shelton's study collected points in this direction:

'Green seems it's a ploy for people to buy things,' says a consumer. 'Manufacturers sometimes think we are stupid or gullible,' says another. So how do go around this? 'Be transparent. That's what's going to win the day with consumers,' says Shelton.

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