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November 20, 2007
Consumers Demand Companies Walk Their Green Talk
    by Anne Moore Odell

The growing number of consumers who identify themselves as "conscious" creates more opportunities for sustainable companies.


Companies who have jumped on the "green" bandwagon have to support their green marketing by improved transparency and verifiable environmental and sustainable products, according to the newly released "BBMG Conscious Consumer Report." BBMG, a marketing agency that specializes in working with socially minded organizations, found that consumers are becoming more conscious of the environmental and social impacts of the companies whose products they buy.

The report, written by BBMG principals Raphael Bemporad and Mitch Baranowski, states that almost nine out of ten Americans surveyed identify themselves as "conscious consumers." If offered products of equal quality and price, conscious consumers are more likely to buy products from companies that are committed to environmentally friendly practices.

"Consumers are hungry for more information about the products and services that they choose in their lives," Bemporad told SocialFunds.com. "They want companies to be transparent about product attributes and ingredients, and honest about their impact on the environment and society. I don't think consumers expect perfection, but they do demand honesty. They will reward companies that are making sincere efforts to do the right thing and take concrete steps in the right direction."

Consumers would also chose products that support fair trade and labor practices and that endorse health and safety benefits.

However, BBMG's survey also points out the disconnect between the consumers' ideals and their real world purchases. BBMG divides US consumers into the "Enlighteneds (10% of consumers), Aspirationals (20%), Practicals (30%) and Indifferents (40%)." The Enlightened are driven by their values and go out of their way to purchase from companies whose missions they agree with, while the Indiffernents aren't motivated by social issues at all and instead are motivated by price and convenience.

This study combines surveys of more than 2,000 adult Americas with ethnography--in-depth field research and interviews--on the issues of conscious consumers. The ethnography was based on interviews and observation of 24 diverse consumers in Lawrence, KS; Long Island, NY; and around Livermore, CA in August 2007. BBMG joined with research partners Bagatto and Global Strategy Group to complete the report.

The report's ethnography found five core values that motivate the "conscious" consumer: convenience, doing good, health and safety, honesty and relationships.

A number of factors are influencing the "conscious boom" Bemporad explained, from Al Gore's "Inconvenient Truth" to the rise in green content by virtually every consumer and business publication and program, and the popularity of green festivals across the nation.

"Also, at a time when many people feel that world events are beyond their control, consumers are looking to leverage their dollars to make a positive impact on society," Bemporad added.

Consumers can name which companies have done the most for the environment. At the top of the list is Whole Foods who was picked the most socially responsible company by 22% of those surveyed. Other companies named were Newman's Own, Wal-Mart, Burt's Bees, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson and Ben & Jerry's.

Interestingly, people had an easier time labeling themselves as "conscious consumers," "socially responsible consumers" and "environmentally-friendly consumers" than they did calling themselves "green" consumers. BBMG's report says that the "green" label is seen as "more exclusive." Perhaps, too, it has to do with Americans discomfort with labeling groups by colors with its racial and political connotations.

Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed said that price was a very important consideration when making a purchase and 66% answered the quality of the product was very important. However, BBMG points out that convenience of the product--34% said was very important-has been over taken by socially conscious consideration such as where a product is made (44% very important), how energy efficient it is (41% very important) and its health benefits (36% very important).

Not surprisingly, those surveyed put personal issues above global issues as the ones that they cared about the most. Clean drinking water and clean air took first place as the most important issues over the global issue, climate change.

Consumers are more willing to engage in "easy" behaviors, such as recycling cans, bottles and newspapers (55% always) and using energy efficient appliances (46% always), but they often fail to adopt a plethora of more "demanding" behaviors like carpooling (10% always), using public transportation (9% always) or purchasing carbon offsets (3% always).

Socially responsible investors remain a minority. BBMG's survey found with only 11% of those surveyed always investing in mutual funds or stocks of companies that maintain high ethical and social standards and 46% never buying them.

In conclusion, Bemporad said, "At the end of the day, we believe that when you align your values with your actions, great things can happen. 'What companies bring to market will be less important than "how" they bring their products and services to market. The market will be driven not just by commodities, but by values and human relationships."

"America's consumers will reward companies that back their eco-friendly words with socially responsible actions. The paradigm is shifting from driving transactions to building enduring values-based relationships," he added.

BBMG's research is backed up by research released earlier this year by the marketing group egg which found that conscious consumers make up to 70% of the overall US marketplace, and can be divided the consumers who say they are conscious and the one who actually back up their statements with buying behavior. egg's research finds that between 7% to 20% of buying population, the "Advocates," back up their beliefs with what they buy, while 36% of people, the "Skeptics," don't embrace conscious or social products.

BBMG suggests three insights for companies and marketers from its research. The first is that consumers want to trust the products they buy and feel like they have a relationship with "brands." Second, consumer consciousness is "self-centered" and companies that offer personal health and care products that are sustainable and affordable do well. Lastly, companies that can accomplish "small steps" toward sustainability can make big inroads with conscious consumers.

Although it surveyed a very small number of US citizens, this report still offers interesting insights for companies, especially companies who offer retail brands. US consumers have high ideals concerning the environment and social issues, and expect companies to live up these ideals even as the consumers don't always practice what they preach themselves.

 

 
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