A newly released survey, conducted in the US and the UK, indicates the environment has taken a back seat to the economy for more than 75 percent of Americans and 66 percent of Britons.
The research, presented by executives from WPP (Nasdaq: WPPGY) agencies Landor Associates, Cohn & Wolfe, and Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates (PSB) at Sustainable Brands 08, also indicates that two out of three Americans think the environment is in worse shape than it was five years ago, and that lower income consumers have greater concern for the direction of the environment than wealthier consumers. Despite economic considerations, however, consumers are still willing to pay more for green products.
"We have been tracking perceptions of green for over three years, and this year's results are somewhat alarming in that they indicate consumers only prioritize the environment when all other concerns are equal," said Russ Meyer, chief strategy officer of Landor Associates. "With agricultural commodities running low and the rising cost of gas in the United States, Americans indicate they have more immediate concerns than the environment. With the United Kingdom also beginning to feel the economic crunch, we see some signs of the mentality there beginning to shift."
Consumers in both countries identify themselves as having the biggest impact on the environment. Americans list industry as having had the poorest record of environmental protection, while in the UK, government received the most blame.
Additional lead findings indicate that despite the abundance of "green" marketing in the last 12 months, consumers still view baseline activities, such as recycling, to be the most powerful contribution to environmental improvement. Further, though 95 percent of consumers think too much packaging is used on consumer goods, only 38 percent include packaging criteria in purchase decision.
"The results of the 2008 survey suggest that, despite conversations about eco-overload, sustainability is in a nascent stage, especially in the minds of consumers," said Annie Longsworth, president of Cohn & Wolfe San Francisco. "It will take a unified effort, and excellent communication, among government, corporations, NGOs and consumers to ensure environmental concerns remain at the top of the agenda."
Similar to the 2007 ImagePower(R) findings, US consumers believe Body Care and Grocery to be the "greenest" product categories, while Travel and Energy remain at the bottom of the list. One of the most significant differences between the 2008 and 2007 findings is the shift in thinking about the most pressing environmental concerns. In 2007, most consumers were concerned about global warming, and this year's survey shows that energy and resource issues have increased in importance.
In order to gauge which brands are communicating their green initiatives or values most effectively, the survey asked participants in each country to rank their greenest brands, respectively. The results provide a mix of brands across categories; in the U.S., personal care products make up most of the top 10, while in the U.K. supermarkets do the same:
- Whole Foods
- Burt's Bees
- Trader Joe's
- Tom's of Maine
- Seventh Generation
- Honda and GE (tied)
- Body Shop
- Marks & Spencer
- Tesco, Sainsbury's (tied)
- Dove and Google (tied)
- Co-Operative Bank
- Nivea and Toyota (tied)
"In 2008, the top brands in the US were the ones that you put on or in your body, and in the UK the places where you buy those type of products," said Scott Siff, Executive Vice President at Penn, Schoen & Berland. "Despite consumers' high interest in cutting energy consumption, the brands with real potential to reduce energy usage, though high in the green rankings, could still do a better job of connecting to people's energy-saving impulses more directly, more personally. Doing that would take those brands' green-ness to the next level of consumer relevance."
In addition to the annual ranking of brands, the survey also delves deeper into matters like purchasing habits, environmental concerns and consumers' perceptions of corporate responsibility. Among those issues:
- Environmental pessimism. 67% of American consumers and 69% of Britons think we are in worse environmental shape now than we were five years ago. In the U.S., industry is still seen as the most responsible for the problem, though British consumers now point to their own behavior as having the greatest impact.
- UK issue switch: from 'big picture' to practical solutions. In 2007, 40 percent of British consumers cited 'climate change' as the most important environmental issue they face. Now, only 15 percent hold this view and the focus has shifted to tangible matters that affect the individual, such as waste and recycling.
- U.S. consumers look to government to provide the solution. The environment is no longer viewed as a grassroots concern: 36 percent of Americans believe it should be up to the government to implement policies and standards to advance environmental change.
- Credit crunch fails to deter the U.K.'s committed green shoppers. Despite the worsening economic climate, one in three British consumers say they will spend more on green products this year, and 43 percent are happy to continue spending the same.
- Wealthy Americans and Republicans are less concerned than others. 34 percent of Americans earning over $100K annually and 43 percent of Republicans think the country is moving in the right direction. 59 percent of Americans earning less than $35K annually and 70 percent of Democrats think we're moving in the wrong direction.
- British supermarkets win the lucrative green crown. Six of the U.K.'s top 10 green brands in 2008 are supermarket brands -- reflecting both concerted green initiatives across the sector and consumers' practical focus on everyday solutions like packaging, recycling and reduction of plastic bag use.
The ImagePower(R) Green Brands Survey is conducted annually to gauge consumer perceptions of the "green climate" in both the United States and the United Kingdom. In 2007, the survey uncovered that one-third of Americans were taking part in green activities and that as many as 8 in 10 Britons and Americans alike thought it important or very important to be buying from green brands.