Why Americans Have Trouble Adopting Green Products

According to recent research, most Americans still think of environmentally-friendly products as being out-of-the-ordinary, even a little weird. What if that’s because the people who market such products still describe them as out-of-the-ordinary and weird?

That was the question posed during an especially introspective session at the most recent GoGreen New York conference, as panelists and audience members pondered a question that has come to consume many entrepreneurs and investors in green products in: Why do mainstream American consumers seem relatively reluctant to adopt more sustainable lifestyles?

“As marketers, we believe that people want to feel unique and cool and special,” said Freya Williams, co-founder of Ogilvy Earth, the sustainable products division of Ogilvy and Mather, a top marketing firm. But after researching barriers to green product adoption, she found “it was a big surprise to us that actually, the mainstream consumer likes being normal. So by making these products seem special, we are blocking entry to mainstream consumers because they don’t want to be special. They just want to fit in.”

According to Ogilvy Earth’s research, 16 percent of Americans consider themselves to be “super green” consumers, who make many of their purchasing decisions based on which product they regard as most environmentally friendly. Another 18 percent are “green rejectors,” who disagree with environmental concerns and actively avoid sustainable products.

In between lie the vast majority of Americans: The 66 percent of consumers who believe that environmental concerns are important, but who do not incorporate those concerns into their everyday lives and purchasing decisions.

What’s the reason for this this gap? Part of it has to do with avoiding feelings of guilt that come up when many consumers think about the environmental damage their lifestyles are causing, Williams said. Another part is cost, since products labeled as eco-friendly often come with a premium price tag.

But a major factor behind the sometimes-sluggish adoption of new, more sustainable products is cultural, the researchers found. In many parts of the U.S., doing things like recycling, composting or eating vegetarian food is seen as strange behavior. The simple fact that it is considered outside the mainstream makes it more difficult for sustainable behaviors to become mainstream.

“We found the main reason why these behaviors are not becoming normal is because they’re not normal,” Williams said. “So in order for people to engage in these behaviors, they really have to go out on a limb and send a signal to their friends and peers that they’re weird, that they’re not normal.”

As an example, Williams played a recording taped during her research interviews of a woman describing how difficult it is to be a vegan at a suburban barbeque. “They’ll say, ‘Hey, we have some mud for you,’” the woman said. “And I’ll say ‘Hmm, that tastes great on twigs.”

This divide means that most Americans believe that while they would like to do more for the environment, they can’t buy environmentally products, since those products are meant for people not like them.

“No wonder, then, that half of Americans believe that green products are targeted to rich elitist snobs and crunchy granola hippies,” Williams said. “And that is not someone that the average American consumer wants to be.”

So how can marketers of green products get around this obstacle? The panelists agreed that perhaps the best way is to avoid marketing such products as green at all. Jonathan Atwood, a spokesman for UniLever, mentioned as an example Hellman’s mayonnaise, which started using cage-free eggs for its main line of products, rather than creating an entirely separate eco-friendly line (with distinct packaging and higher prices). Albe Zakes, a spokesman at TerraCycle, pointed to the Method line of home cleaners, which has grown to become a popular fixture at big box retailers including Target without much overt mention of the fact that their products are non-toxic.

“They rely on very slick design of their packaging and very pleasing colors to grow a very big company,” Zakes said.

The panelists also remarked on the penchant of many marketers to throw a century’s worth of accumulated wisdom out the window when it comes to pitching green products. Williams pointed to the Leaf, Nissan’s bubble-shaped electric hybrid car.

“It’s got a girly name, it’s a small cute round car, I love it,” she said. “But for my husband? He wouldn’t be seen dead in that thing. He wants a car that looks like a man’s car.”

We already know how to market cars to men, Williams said, with ads featuring beautiful women and sexy cars zooming around mountain roads in Switzerland. So why not sell the Leaf’s successor that way? And why not invest in green products companies that have figured out ways to fit even revolutionary products into the existing culture?

“Let’s not forget everything that marketers know about mainstream consumers and how to steer them to want things in this new direction,” Williams said.

If the gap between consumers’ environmental concerns and their buying habits comes down to a culture gap, then, the panelists suggested that it’s time to stop marketing green products as green, and start marketing them as simply good products.

“People are buying green products because they like the efficacy, the packaging, the design,” Zakes said. “Green products succeed when the people buying them don’t now that they’re green.”

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