UPDATE: Researchers say Consumers don’t know what ‘green’ means

New findings presented at AHFA’s Sustainability Summit
Heath E. Combs — Furniture Today,

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Green and sustainable product still faces an uphill battle when it comes to reaching a wide audience of consumers, according to new market research.

In fact, they’re still pretty confused about what exactly “green” means and aren’t dying to rush out and be green, said Suzanne Shelton, president and CEO of the Shelton Group, a specialist in researching environmental issues.

Shelton presented some of her recent findings at the American Home Furnishings Alliance’s second annual Sustainability Summit, held recently at the Proximity Hotel here.

The AHFA commissioned the research to measure the importance of environmental attributes in home furnishings purchases. Shelton also reported on related research her firm has done.

She said the AHFA study sought to learn what mainstream consumers care about and respond to in green purchases. The findings are aimed at aiding green marketing messages.

Shelton said that green is a mainstream concept and there is a broad desire – by 60% of the population – for greener product. However, consumers still know very little about what green claims mean and what to believe, she added.

The average consumer knows only enough about green to get through a cocktail party conversation, Shelton said.

“They can cough up a few things just enough to make you think, ‘Oh they know what they’re talking about.’ Yeah, not so much.”

She said that when mainstream consumers were asked to name a feature of a green home, only 53% could. That low percentage was surprising considering that low-wattage light bulbs, flooring from sustainable woods, and solar panels are mainstream examples of green features, she said.

“We’ve thrown a lot out at them today, particularly as it relates to certifications. There’s a whole alphabet soup of stuff out that that means absolutely nothing to consumers. So know that and know that it’s your job to educate them,” said Shelton.

Of the plethora of certifications, she added, the only one with high brand recognition is Energy Star, recognized by 75% of consumers.

For furniture items, 24% of consumers recognize Rainforest Alliance labels, followed by Sustainable Forestry Initiative and GreenGuard certifications, Shelton said. But 60% didn’t know any of the labels shown to them.

“Labels are important. Certifications are important. But we’ve got to have one right at the top again that is supported by a lot of marketing dollars,” Shelton said.

For the majority of consumers, companies that recycle get nearly the same credit for being eco-friendly as if they use renewable energy, produce zero waste and make green products, Shelton said. Consumers understand throwing bottles and newspapers in recycling bins because they’ve probably done it themselves.

“For the vast majority of consumers green equals recycled,” Shelton said.

There are also widespread misperceptions about product claims, she said, citing the terms “natural” and “organic.” Consumers would rather see a product that is “natural” rather than “organic,” but they don’t really the difference between the two, the survey found. Lower middle class income earners believe organic is a fancy marketing term that allows companies to charge more money

“What we hear over and over in focus groups is two things: One, a giant misperception that ‘natural’ is actually the regulated term, and ‘organic’ is not regulated. Which is exactly the opposite of how it is,” Shelton said.

She said companies hoping to market green claims need to understand their audience, and must realize that it will take significant marketing dollars to inform their consumers.

Green features, however, can serve as a tiebreaker in mature industries, she said. For example, she said that in facial moisturizers, if consumers are faced with two equal brands at the same price, sustainability features would likely help influence a purchasing decision.

In sofas, fiber typically is one of the top categories that consumers consider in judging a product, she said. That is good news for organic fiber, which at higher price points – say $1,599 and up – would likely help sway a consumer, Shelton said.

“Green features from furniture are important. It’s not most important thing, but it’s important in a tiebreaker,” she said. “And it commands a higher price point. So that’s great news as a marketer. It’s mainstream and people will pay more money for it.”

Shelton said many consumers also are confused about what’s bad for them. Shelton said 67% of consumers said they were concerned about chemicals in skin care products, but when the identified what they were concerned about, 48% identified formaldehyde, 22% said phthalates, 11% said lanolin, 15% said paraffin and 13% said glycerin.

Also, she said, 97% of consumers didn’t know that the biggest cause of global warming is coal-fired power plants and that most believed cars and trucks were the biggest contributors.

While green is important to consumers, companies have to “connect the dots,” for them, Shelton said. A trick is finding what advertising consumers will respond to and understanding that they won’t respond to guilt.

“Some of this environmental advertising is so holier-than-thou and preachy and so specific on the negative and what’s bad…. Most consumers don’t respond to that,” she said. “They want to see something a little more positive, a little more light, something that doesn’t seem like the entire future of the free world depends on them.”

Some of the most effective green marketing messages appeal to what consumers aspire to, messages such as comfort, control and beauty.

She presented examples, including a billboard for insulation showing a house wrapped in a scarf, which appeals to the desire for comfort; rain barrels mixed with flowers as appealing to a desire not to be wasteful; and LED lighting that beautifies a dark room.

Consumers don’t want to be pushed as much as gently led to green purchases, she said.

A misconception is that consumers go green to save the planet or to save money. Consumers make rational decisions and companies selling green features must tap into the reasons why consumers want those products, she said.

Appealing to consumers’ humanity or sense of what’s best for the planet and themselves might not win sales because people do bad things to themselves and know they are bad, she said. So consumers might voice concern on many eco-fronts, but don’t necessarily reflect that attitude in their actions.

For example, Shelton said when consumers were asked to name an item they would give up if it was hurting the environment, 42% said an iPod, 38% the dishwasher, 28% the microwave, and just 7% their car. Consumers don’t want to sacrifice convenience or comfort, she said.

“This speaks to just how important comfort means to our life. ‘I’ll save the plant, as long as I don’t have to give up my stuff.’ That’s how it reads,” she said. “If we had to choose between our comfort, our convenience or the environment, we would pretty much throw polar bears under the bus.”

Shelton said there are also multiple audiences for green product, so targeting consumers with just one message won’t reach everyone. The two major groups of green consumers, she said, are “engaged” and “mainstream” greens.

Engaged greens see themselves as optimistic leaders, up-to-date on current events, extroverted and secure in their feelings, she said. The group is likely to be purchasing green products right now.

“They’re going to experience things. They just want to want to get in the middle of something, to try it,” Shelton said.

Mainstream green consumers are less likely to be extroverts, more likely to go along with the crowd, like what they use, are brand loyal, don’t necessarily follow current events and think about decisions for a while before making them.

“They’re going to wait and see what happens,” Shelton said.

Messages with themes like community, idealism and altruism appeal to engaged greens, she said, while mainstream greens are drawn to messages focusing on duty, piety, reliability, proven success and logic.

When consumers have made an effort to purchase green products, like Clorox GreenWorks, it’s because the product is a low-risk trial from a well known brand in the same aisle as other cleaning products. Shoppers don’t have to “schlep across the store to the special, you know, weirdo green section to buy it,” Shelton said.

When asked why companies “go green,” findings showed that consumers don’t really trust manufacturers’ motives. She reported that most consumers believe it’s an act, while other believe it’s to make money or because of government regulations.

However, she said that a third of customers trust manufacturers’ label claims on why their product is green.

“So, I’m going to read your label and hope you’re telling me the truth,” she said.

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