It goes without saying that Americans are a diverse group, and this diversity is amply reflected in our environmental views. Polls consistently demonstrate that Americans care about the environment, but the environment means many things to many people. In 2000, a video documentary team toured 17 U.S. cities in 17 days -- mostly smaller towns -- interviewing random people on the street. Click on the Voices video button to the right to hear what some of those interviewed think of our environmental future and their own personal impact. Also, listen to Betsy Taylor of the Center for the New American Dream discuss six things consumers can do to be more environmentally responsible.
The public isn't always well-informed about environmental issues, either. Each year, The National Environmental Education & Training Foundation (NEETF) issues a 10-question survey on environmental awareness; in a typical year, Americans averaged fewer than 25 percent correct answers to basic environmental literacy questions. Furthermore, myths and misconceptions persist. Surveys indicate that many Americans still believe that trash bags can be made to biodegrade in landfills (virtually nothing degrades in landfills). Many people still believe aerosol cans contain ozone-destroying ingredients (chlorofluorocarbons were banned from aerosols in 1978) and that landfills are brimming with plastic (plastic accounts for just 9 percent of municipal solid waste, paper and cardboard four times as much). Listen to Kevin Coyle, NEETF president, discuss environmental literacy in America by clicking on the audio button to the right.
In the early 1990s, when the notion of environmentally preferable products first entered the mainstream, many brand-name consumer goods companies viewed the environment as a potential gold mine of marketing opportunities. Surveys showed that many shoppers in industrialized nations -- as many as eight in ten consumers -- would gladly choose an environmentally improved product over its conventional counterpart. So, "green" products came gushing forth.
But a funny thing happened on the road to the environmental marketplace: the greener products didn't sell. Surveys cast blame on substandard products, higher prices for "green" items, unfamiliar brands, and products requiring changes in consumer behavior. Those market research surveys told only part of the story. Consumers would gladly make the greener choice -- if the product didn't cost more or require a change of habits, if it could be purchased where one already shopped, if it came from a trusted brand, and if it was at least as good as its competition.
Consumers are more willing to make environmentally conscious shopping choices when they can see a direct link between the purchase and an environmental problem. When the personal health of their families is at stake, consumers are much more motivated to go out of their way to purchase environmentally conscious products, and even pay extra for the privilege of doing so. Consider the market for organic foods, beverages, clothing, and other goods. Since 1990, the sales of organic products in the U.S. have grown more than sixfold, from less than $1 billion to $6 billion in 2000, according to a survey by The Hartman Group for the Organic Trade Association. The Hartman survey found organic food sales growing at 20 percent a year, compared to annual food industry sales growth of only 3 percent to 5 percent.
Why have organics prospered while other green products languished? The environment is not the principal driver, though farming organically is considerably less environmentally harmful than conventional farming. The perceived healthfulness of organics is among the leading reasons behind their success.
Public concern about the health impacts of environmental issues could be a powerful marketing force. But Americans seem to want to have things both ways, according to a 1999 survey by Wirthlin Worldwide. "When it comes to their health, most Americans are walking contradictions," according to Wirthlin. "We order diet cola with our double cheeseburger. We buckle our safety belts and then exceed the speed limit. . . . We claim we want a pristine environment at all costs, yet we continue to buy products whose manufacture, packaging, or ingredients are believed to be harmful to the environment."
The mushrooming sales of organics represents the tip of a larger marketing iceberg, something called LOHAS, an acronym for "lifestyles of health and sustainability." The LOHAS market is huge and growing -- "conservatively estimated" at $230 billion in the U.S. and $546 billion worldwide, according to Natural Business Communications, which publishes a trade magazine aptly called LOHAS Journal.
LOHAS products and services, say marketing experts, are targeted at a vast swath of the American citizenry dubbed Cultural Creatives -- some 59 million people or 26 percent of American adults, according to American LIVES, a California market research firm. Cultural Creatives, says sociologist Dr. Paul Ray, who coined the term, are on the cutting edge of social change. Says Ray: "They have a different set of values than the subcultures that have dominated America's past. They are interested in new kinds of products and services and often respond to marketing and advertising in unexpected ways. They represent valuable new market opportunities if their needs can be met and addressed."
Cultural Creatives "are the careful, well-informed shoppers who don't buy on impulse," Ray counsels marketers. "They'll begin word-of-mouth campaigns, both positive and negative, about your products. . . . Their values and lifestyles are crucially important to them when making buying decisions on big-ticket items, such as cars, houses, and home furnishings. In essence, for the Cultural Creative, it's not about the one who dies with the most toys wins -- it's about living a meaningful life." (Read more about Cultural Creatives and their impact in the marketplace in an interview between Dr. Ray and the LOHAS Journal.)
Who wouldn't want a little more meaning in their lives? Unfortunately, consumers -- even Cultural Creatives -- are a skeptical bunch when it comes to environmental marketing claims. And this makes it tough for companies hoping to tap into this marketplace.
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