Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Problem with Researching Green Consumerism

There is probably more rubbish market research data available on green consumerism than any other topic.

Each year, on Earth day Joel Makower rounds it all up, questions its validity and wonders what the heck it all means. See his 2009 summary here.

He quite rightly questions the enormous overclaim in the responses to these surveys. Stuff like 36% of Americans "always or regularly buy green products" from Mintel.

What does that mean?

It is certainly not reflected in the market shares of green products in the US which represent a fraction of total products bought. I suspect it is a combination of consumers wanting to buy green stuff, not really knowing what it is and occasionally buying something greenish. Easy them to say you "buy green".

The problem with research on green consumerism is in some respects the problem with the concept itself. The elephant in the room is that consumerism (as an ideology) and sustainability pull in opposite directions.

Environics social values research identifies about a quarter of Canadians as being "green" - in terms of agreement with willingness to pay more and discriminate green products. A large number of this group are established baby boomers concerned with their legacy, who use consumerism as a means to affect change. But they do not really know how to do it. This group tend to be very enthusiastic consumers. When we look at their attitudes to shopping, they enjoy it very much. They are more enthusiastic than the general population. The other largest group are younger liberal progressives. They are not enthusiastic consumers and they actively dislike shopping. We did a recent survey for Bullfrog Power (where people pay a premium on their electricity bill for renewable energy). This is pure "green purchase" with no benefit of status or joy of consumption. Their customers (real "green consumers") were overwhelmingly liberal progressive.

The current problem with research on green consumerism is that these groups are not differentiated. The established boomers will buy some organic granola and Method brand hand soap and happily check the box that says they "usually" buy green products. This does not reflect reality.

This is one area where asking about attitudes, intention and general reported behaviour is worthless and even potentially very misleading. A record of actual behaviour or very specific questionning on actual behaviour is the only way to understand the topic.


k.korostoff said...

I am fascinated by the challenges in researching consumer behavior on "green" topics. I have been looking at the various segmentation models from different research firms, but obviously they all have limits. This is just one of those markets where very few customers can reasonably self-report behaviors and preferences. Some creative options for researching the market exist, but it is tricky!

Robin said...

I really think any segmentation to shed light on green consumerism should incorporate values and attitudes beyond environmental issues and issues related to green consumption. It should include values related fundamental social issues and consumerism itself.