The Green Mirage

Here's an inconvenient truth: Most consumers aren't terribly concerned about the environment

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We're in the midst of a green revolution, right? Actually, no. Despite Al Gore's Nobel Peace Prize and the green-branding of products from toothpaste to toilet paper, most consumers are unwilling to pay extra or make sacrifices to be more environmentally friendly. A recent study by the market research firm Yankelovich found that only 13 percent of Americans are passionate about environmental issues—while 29 percent have virtually no interest. For most companies, green products represent only a "niche" opportunity, according to the report. U.S. News spoke recently with Yankelovich President J. Walker Smith about consumer attitudes and behavior:

So consumers still don't respond strongly to environmental concerns?

Public opinion about the environment is pretty mushy. If you want to get people to act greener, the best thing to do is talk to them about saving money, not about saving the environment. Also talk to them about health concerns. That gets their attention. How do attitudes vary by region?

Thirteen percent of Americans are passionate about the environment. They're more upscale and tend to live in the Northeast or West Coast. Most people are indifferent about the environment. That shows up disproportionately among white males in the South. There's a strong lack of personal connection to the environment. In the U.S., people understand it as an abstract issue. Your clients include some big corporations. What's their interest?

Our clients want to know if this is an issue they should pay attention to. And if so, how should they pay attention. It's not just about green products; it could be about green manufacturing. Some of our clients just come out and say, it's not the issue for me. In what industries does this matter the most and the least?

Industries where there's concern include home builders, autos, consumer packaged goods.... The last one, they're looking very strongly but haven't yet decided how to deal with green. It could be areas where there's a connection between green and wellness. Financial services companies are largely uninterested. Retailers, there are a lot who couldn't care less—probably a majority. Most grocery retailers, they're not making a big push. The fashion industry is at the bottom of the list, unless you tag lifestyle concerns.

Still, your numbers don't show that people don't care; they just show that it's not a huge trend, right?

A lot of the publicity surrounding green makes it sound like a mainstream concern. It's not. It's a pretty big number, but not the majority of Americans. Our priority is to debunk the notion that green is a priority among a majority of Americans. It's not. So what are some of the things people are willing to do to be environmentally correct, or whatever the right term is?

Green behaviors are things people tend to do when it can save them money, like turn out the lights when you leave the room. But people don't like to be characterized as a tree-hugger. There are still some pejorative connotations with that. For most Americans green is nice, but don't go overboard. People tend to buy products with Energy Star ratings, for instance, because it saves them money. So most companies are free not to worry about environmental concerns? Or should they still be doing something?

The traditional marketing model is, you change attitudes in order to change behavior. But you might be able to change behavior here without changing attitudes, as opposed to the tree-hugger route, where you're preaching an environmental message. So if you come out with a hybrid car, why are you talking about the environment? Why don't you talk about saving money on gas instead? If you have environmentally friendly building materials, why not talk about the savings? Some companies, like Toyota, have developed a very strong environmental image. Does your research show whether that translates into business success? Whether it actually helps them make money?

Toyota is our top-rated company in terms of environmental image, with 23 percent of consumers giving it a favorable rating. But if I were Toyota, I'd be concerned that 75 percent of people gave me a moderate score.

  • Rick Newman

    Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback to Success and the co-author of two other books. Follow him on Twitter or e-mail him at

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