Survey says: green surveys are improbably optimistic

Some numbers to begin:

– 53% of consumers would be willing to pay a premium for televisions with green attributes.
– 34% and 44% of Americans are respectively more likely to buy and just as likely to buy environmentally responsible products.
– More than half of all consumers say they have made a green purchase in the last six months.

No, these aren’t the results of the latest TerraPass customer survey. And, believe it or not, this isn’t data assembled pre-recession. These three statistics come from surveys published (in order) by the Consumer Electronics Association, strategic marketing agency Cone and Yahoo!. They have been published within the last four months.

Before November 2008 I might have raised an eyebrow at these kind of numbers and crossed my fingers that they might actually be true. These days I just stare, incredulous, at my computer screen and wonder who really believed them.

The Cone Consumer Environmental Study is the latest. Based on interviews conducted at the end of January it asserts that:

> Despite the dire state of the economy, 34% of American consumers indicate they are more likely to buy environmentally responsible products today

Coincidentally, 34% happens to be the same number by which spending on luxury goods has *dropped*, according to research by MasterCard. So, if both are correct, then “green” goods are seeing a roughly 70% surge above the trend for luxury goods. Or maybe all those people that used to buy luxury goods are now spending their precious dollars on hemp shirts instead of whatever they used to buy.

It just doesn’t add up. And, in case you were wondering, we’re not seeing that surge in new visitors to TerraPass either, as I discussed on Marketplace during the holidays.

So, what’s happening here? One commentator points out that it’s convenient and not a little self-serving for the Consumer Electronics Association to announce that 53% of people would pay more for a “green” tv, together with other examples where the publisher/sponsor of the research may have an interest in promoting the idea of consumers spending more on “green”.

So — a challenge to those that publish these surveys: show us your working. Publish the full questionnaires so that we can try to understand better how the American consumer, is defying logic and still buying “green”.

Last year there was an ABC news story that declared “7 in 10 reducing ‘carbon footprint’“. In TV coverage, ABC’s anchors described it as “surprising”. Me too. But ABC should be applauded for publishing the full results as well as the raw survey data (pdf). The survey was conducted in late July when energy prices were skyrocketing. And so when the interviewer explains (question 27) that reducing your carbon footprint included things like using less fuel, it’s not surprising that 71% of respondents reply that yes, they are doing something to reduce their footprint.

My favorite bit comes further down in question 30 and is asked to those who have said they are reducing their carbon footprint.

> Are you doing these things more to improve the environment or more to save money?

So guess how this one turns out. Saving money has just (finally) come back into fashion and I’d be interested to see if people answered any differently now. But back in July, when big credit was still all the rage, more people claimed they were saving energy for the sake of the environment than to save cash. Call me a cynic, but I don’t believe it. What I do know is that given the choice of explaining something as caring altruism or frugality, I’d probably go for the former, however pleased I was to be saving the money.

I guess it’s all in the way you ask the questions. But I can’t help thinking that so many people like to think of themselves as “green” and today’s marketing messages make it so easy — “this tv/laptop/cellphone is green and hey, maybe I’ll buy one of those this year. But money’s tight… perhaps if I just *say* I’m green to this researcher then I’ll feel better about it. Hmm and I must find out about that recycling thing one of these days.”

Perhaps I’m being grossly unfair. And perhaps 70% of consumers really do buy “green”. Or maybe, like so many things, the best of intentions rarely get translated into action until there’s a real economic incentive to do so.

Come back high gas prices, all is forgiven. Or better yet, come soon carbon pricing…

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  1. Dirk F - February 25, 2009

    I actually take pride in the fact that everything I have done to be more “green” has saved me money. I will NOT buy “green” products that don’t put more green in my wallet.

  2. darooda - February 25, 2009

    The green vs frugal point is an interesting one. I agree it isn’t popular to be seen as frugal, so some were probably answering green for image sake. I honestly don’t know how I would have answered that one. Sure I love green tech and using as little energy as possible. But I also love saving the money. It would be great to go out and get those solar panels I’ve been looking at, and and buy all those storm windows at once. But reality is I buy a few at a time, add some LEDs here and there and continue to car pool, even when gas is under $1.50.
    So I guess it would depend on my mood, but since I believe that our lack of fiscal responsibility in this country could bring down the whole house of cards. And that if that happens we won’t be able to achieve any real near term change. I’d say to save money, also knowing that I love that my families weekly trash fits in one kitchen bag.

  3. Meg - February 25, 2009

    “Buying green”… sounds kind of like “sustainable development” to me. Isn’t NOT buying – i.e. conserving, reusing, refusing, however you put it- the greenest form of consumerism? Granted if you have to buy a product, then yes we should be selected the option that is best for the environment (and perhaps also for society, etc.). But given that, buying the greenest I-pod and blackberry doesn’t make you an eco-champion – it makes you a willing victim of the latest fads.

  4. Dave - February 25, 2009

    I agree that looking at things from an eco footprint perspective is most useful for assessing the ecological impacts. Whether most people do that quantitatively when making buying decisions, I still doubt. But it’s great to have eco impact “yardstick” info available (e.g. “Energy Star” ratings, etc) when one is considering a purchase.
    I disagree that not buying is always greener than buying something new. If I buy new injected foam insulation for my house walls (as I’m now considering) and reduce my family’s carbon footprint for baseload living necessities, that is a plus. Payback time for such an investment is icing on the cake. When did people expect all purchases to have a payback time? Many items do not, but simply depreciate as they give you the desired service (vehicles, for example).
    I will say that I’m happy for some new tax incentives to spur energy efficiency conservation investments. My philosophy is to reduce my footprint as much as possible, and then offset what is left.
    Maybe someday we’ll have a world where cash register pricing equates to eco impact and all purchase decisions based on dollars or impacts, will be equivalently well made. Until there’s a carbon tax, we won’t be there yet. Those of us who care about the earth realize that sustainability is more than just a financial decision at this point. It’s about securing a good future for our next generations as well as other interdependent life on the planet.
    Publishing a poll result without showing the original questions, should be an automatic red flag to social scientists and the public at large who wish to derive meaning from the numbers.

  5. Kurt Schoeneman - February 25, 2009

    I converted to a very efficient heat pump. SEER 21, COF 11. However, I notice that since it costs less I use a bit more heat and I didn’t even have air conditioning before. I’m still saving money and being greener, but…

  6. Jonno - February 25, 2009

    Completely agree with your comments. I live in New Zealand, “clean and green”, but even my generation SUX the big banana when it comes to even thinking about the environment. Recycling is too much for most people. I’d say no more than 20% of people here think about the environmental consequences of their actions on a daily, or even weekly basis.

  7. dave in kentucky - March 1, 2009

    I concur with alot of what Dave said. I sell installed geo systems, they have a substantial cost. I have been justifying the cost of geo and solar since the 1st Carter surge of interest. Small energy purchases or lifestyle changes get the ball rolling, larger ones should be inevitable, but there is definitely resistance to purchasing for the right reason. For me to make a sale it almost always came down to someone’s ROI or payback. The perfect storm of causation was high prices, news of climate change and lack of stock market options, and that has helped turn the tide, the gov’s help with credits is good, but they can’t flip-flop, consumers and big business want stability. They fear changing financial returns, product support etc. I think people will go ahead and make buying decisions for the larger ticket items but they don’t need to hear about future whiz bang products meant for some distant scientific breakthru.

  8. Joy - March 4, 2009

    I have a question. Does any of you know where I can get a Grant to clean up after the ice storm we had here in Arkansas? We were with out power for 15 days & 2 hours..I am also looking for a grant to build a Hydro plant here for our electric..Also some suggestion on using some solar planels..can I get planel cheap somewhere I mean cheap cheap…we are a couple in our very late 60′s,so can use all help from you I can get..Thank you

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