Consumers push back against the high cost of 'green' products

More consumers are tired of sacrificing for the sake of ecological correctness, a Green Gauge survey by GfK revealed today.

“[W]hile 93% of consumers say they have personally changed their behavior to conserve energy in their household, they’re becoming less willing to pay more for green products,” writes Advertising Age, reporting on the survey of 2,000 U.S. consumers.

A big business getting smaller

Green business has been big business.

Last year, American consumers spent an estimated $40-plus billion on products claiming to be environmentally friendly: $29.2 billion on organic food; over $10 billion for hybrid, electric and clean-diesel automobiles; more than $2 billion on corkscrew fluorescent lightbulbs; and $640 million on green cleaning products.

But, according to GfK survey results, last year may be the good old days.

The percentage of consumers who said they’d pay more for green products has shrunken significantly.

Four years ago, in 2008, 45% of consumers said they’d pay more for clothing with recycled content. Today, only 40% will.

Packaging that uses less plastic suffered a similar decline, from 52% to 47%, as did food without hormones and antibiotics (57% then, 51% now), products made with recycled paper (from 53% to 47%) and electricity from renewable sources (56% vs. 48%).

The biggest losers were biodegradable plastic packaging (58% to 49%), energy-efficient light bulbs (70% to 60%) and “autos that pollute less” (62% to 49%).

Doubts among the faithful?

This suggests to GfK consulting director Diane Crispell that many of environmentalism’s true believers may be losing faith. “You have this kind of heightened distrust,” she said. “Consumers have become hypercritical. You see it with green and health claims.”

Much of this distrust appears to be justified as a reaction to years of overpromise and hype.

In response to “consumer pushback…with marketers for over-hyping green products and making overly aggressive claims,” the Federal Trade Commission will be releasing its final Green Guide at an October 1 meeting of the National Advertising Division in New York. This will focus increased regulatory scrutiny on marketers’ questionable environmental benefit claims.

Another factor may be attention span. Green products’ novelty has worn off, Crispell says, “so people are evaluating them more and being more critical.”

Unwilling to sacrifice?

If environmentalism is like a religion, as critics claim, then maybe more and more adherents are becoming less and less willing to keep tithing at the checkout counter.

Or, as the Obama Recession wears on to the end end of its third year, they may be finding themselves less and less able to.

As we reported here in November, 2010:

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.

That, incidentally, is an earlier edition of the same study we’re reporting on now.

Lip service

Though there are still committed “Green Indeed” consumers out there willing and able to pay more for products with environmental claims, mainstream consumers aren’t buying it. “The awareness is there about environmental issues, and people are motivated,” Crispell explained, but not to the point of putting their money where their awareness is.

Bill Bernbach, the founder of what was to become global advertising giant DDB, once said, ““More and more I have come to the conclusion that a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money.”

On the basis of the latest Green Gauge survey, it looks like environmentalism is starting to become less and less of a principle.