Consumer revolt makes green advertisers blue (and puts them in the red)

As if October hadn’t been bad enough for green marketers, here comes November’s bad news.

First, the New York Times reports, it seems that those “synthetic, reusable grocery bags, another must-have accessory for the socially conscious[,]” contain lead:

[R]eports from around the country have trickled in recently about reusable bags, mostly made in China, that contained potentially unsafe levels of lead. The offending bags were identified at several stores, including some CVS pharmacies [including those in Richmnond]; the Rochester-based Wegman’s grocery chain recalled thousands of its bags, made of recycled plastic, in September.

Concerns have proliferated so much that Senator Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, sent a letter on Sunday to the Food and Drug Administration, urging the agency to investigate the issue.

But that’s not really marketing and advertising news. Here’s what is: According to recently released consumer research and sales results, you can no longer just call your product eco-friendly, sit back and watch the money roll in — particularly if you have a lousy product.

After three years of growth, sales of “green” cleaners, recycled paper products and hybrid cars are down, while GfK Roper research shows that consumer disillusionment with the whole green-product category is way up.

Green sales down

Greener cleaners, for example, are no longer among the hottest household products. In a November 3 conference call, Clorox Co. COO Larry Peiros characterized top-line results as disappointing. “We remain in the number-one share position,” he said, “but we’re declining pretty much along with the category.” While Clorox Green Works sales rose 5% overall for the year ending October 3, it was only because Clorox cut their green-product prices an average of 17% across the board. Despite the price cuts, individual Green Works products, particularly the more established ones, saw sales drop as much as 15%.

SC Johnson’s Nature’s Source line has been losing shelf space and prominence at retailers across the country.

You’ll no longer see Marcal, the oldest and largest brand of 100% recycled paper products, at your Richmond Kroger store (or in 14 other supermarket chains that Kroger owns elsewhere), because the nation’s biggest supermarket chain stopped carrying Marcal last quarter.

And in a model year when total auto sales were up 10%, hybrid sales were down 10% –a 20% spread.

Consumer resistance up

According to September’s GfK Roper Green Gauge study, there’s a big upswing in the number of consumers who complain that eco-friendly products are too expensive, don’t work well and really aren’t all that great for the environment.

A majority of consumers surveyed – 61% – say that green products are too expensive. One out of three – up from one out of four in 2008 – don’t believe that so-called green products work as well. And 38% – a big proportional increase from 30% just two years ago – believe that so-called green products aren’t really better for the environment.

Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?

With an argument reminsicent of some national political rhetoric– i.e., that consumers are bitter and clinging to their old ways just because they’re too stupid and ungrateful to appreciate the wonderfulness of inferior, overpriced products – some green marketers blame the customer. “[A] lot of green choices require a change in behavior, and people are very slow to change,” whines Eric Ryan, co-founder of Method personal and home care products. “In a lot of ways companies are ahead of the consumer on that shift,” he claims, “and that’s where you’re seeing the shakeout.”

But, as with the election aftermath, that’s denial, not reality. For three straight years, American consumers tried a growing quantity of proliferatingf green products and, based on their own first-hand experience, found them wanting. Not because consumers are lazy, selfish, ignorant ingrates, but because they’re prepared to sacrifice only so many tangibles to the abstract ideals of ecological correctness.

So if you’re selling a green product or service, here are some ways to avoid the consumer revolt:

  • Calling your product green won’t automatically sell it. That train left the station at least a year ago.
  • Have other selling points, like maybe your green household cleaner actually does a good cleaning job.
  • Don’t expect your customers to subsidize your abstract idealism. Give them their money’s worth.
  • Realize that they don’t want to make sacrifices, and have every right not to. If your product’s performance, pricing or convenience leave something to be desired, be prepared for them to buy elsewhere.
  • Environmentally friendly corporate activites, properly publicized, will probably do more to sell your brand than an overpriced, underperforming, inconvenient line of fashion statements for the socially conscious.
  • Heretical as it may sound, don’t look down on your customers. Realize that when a product – green or otherwise – fails in the marketplace, it’s never the consumer’s fault and almost always the product’s.