Frugality And Social Status Trump Altruism

Green may be the new black, but not for the reasons you might expect. "Colorblind," a cross-industry, cross-country study of consumers' "green" attitudes and behaviors conducted by Communispace Corporation in partnership with Design Continuum, reveals that there are many reasons people do (and don't) engage in sustainable practices themselves or favor brands that do.

Altruism, as it turns out, is not the main driver. While some people expressed idealistic reasons for choosing green, most based their actions on what was cost-effective, practical, and had a clear connection to their daily lives.

"We recycle way more than any of our neighbors, usually putting out two bins every 2 weeks as opposed to the neighbors putting out 1 or none."
Green activities -- especially recycling -- are social phenomena. It's about the kudos, not just the climate. Factors like peer pressure increasingly influence consumers' behavior. And as environmentalism becomes ever more mainstreamed, consumers will strive to more conspicuously demonstrate through their purchases and actions (e.g., recycling bins on the curbside, reusable shopping bags, driving a Prius) just how green they are -- but only if those measures have material benefit.

"I have always been green as a measure of frugality. My Mom dries her paper towels for reuse. With an example like that, I didn't even know I was 'green' until lately."
Consumers are generally reluctant to sacrifice personal convenience, low cost, or comfort in the interests of the environment -- especially when the environmental benefit of doing so is unclear. But they are motivated by personal and brand measures that they believe to be resourceful or economical.

So what are the implications for marketers?

1. Speak to a diversity of values. People engage with the environment in different ways and for different reasons. Some consumers buy green products and engage in sustainable practices because they want to preserve the planet, but many more are driven simply by a general abhorrence of waste and belief in frugality. So as your company goes green, stay relevant by reflecting this diversity in your messaging. How? ...

2. Connect by focusing on what is close and practical, but paint a bigger picture. Consumers are more cognizant of how they purchase, use and dispose of products than they are of how products are manufactured. So make sure your products' environmental benefits at the point of purchase are clear and tangible (e.g. non-toxic ingredients, sustainable packaging, recyclability), but also commit to educating and building awareness about what measures you are taking at earlier phases of the product lifecycle (e.g. in raw materials, manufacturing, etc.). That's why you should ...

3. Commit to the long haul. To overcome consumer skepticism, demonstrate consistent engagement in sustainable practices across the entire product lifecycle. Individual environmental efforts can build confidence, but corporate social responsibility will be more powerful when efforts accumulate over time and across different parts of the company. So do it and communicate it ...

4. Provide the trustworthy information consumers crave. Environmental issues are complex and people's feelings about them even more so. Companies can win favor with consumers by providing clear and consistent information about sustainability, by "walking the talk," and by being open about your own actions. By disclosing all information about environmental impact (even when it's not flattering) you help meet the need for better, more reliable information. But that's not enough ...

5. Share the burden. Consumers believe that environmentally friendly products are more expensive, and they're wary of companies passing on the burden of sustainability by hiking prices. So accept that you must share the burden, and communicate how you are taking on the cost of producing sustainable solutions.

3 comments about "Frugality And Social Status Trump Altruism ".
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  1. Robert Sawyer, June 24, 2009 at 2:51 p.m.

    In the end, I believe convenience and perceived cost trump altruism and social pressure. Ultimately consumers' green consciousness and resulting behavior will be accelerated not by marketers but by legislation. We will see increased adaption of more sustainable products, goods and services, because businesses will be mandated by law to produce them. To see just how fast this shift will occur, look at how quickly the perception of cigarette smoking has gone from a widely practiced, socially acceptable activity into offensive and even criminal behavior. A small minority of committed individuals (activists) will increasingly determine social choice and their interests, whether banning snack food from school vending machines or lowering blood/alcohol levels, will become normative and assimilated by the public.

  2. Julie Schlack from Communispace Corporation, June 24, 2009 at 3:08 p.m.

    I think your analogy to cigarette smoking is a great one, Robert, and I agree that it's the eventual convergence of social mores, legislation, and cost/benefit ratio that drives widespread adoption of new behaviors.

  3. Jai Cole, June 26, 2009 at 11:09 a.m.

    Did you know that the exposition trade and consumer show industry is second only to the construction industry for the amount of waste that goes into landfill. The Expo industry and trade associations IAEE, CEIR etc are very proactive and developing standards to help shows become environmentaly friendly.
    When you attend a show think of where you are disposing your trash and check for recycling bins and consider the amount of print materials you are picking up that could be emailed to you instead.
    When you exhibit - ask show management about the many ways you can make your exhibit green and ask what they are doing to be a green show.
    Jai Cole, CEM, ExpositionGuru and green exposition writer

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