How Green Was My Valet?

igreen shopper.jpg

Joel Makower began a recent piece with this question:

What is it with pollsters and green consumers? Why do nearly all of the surveys seem so gushingly optimistic, even during pessimistic times? That's a question that's been nagging me the past few weeks.

He starts to answer his own questions, pointing out that the results of many of the survey results he lists are suspect. Some were done by companies with a strong interest in the outcome. And there are some that are simply misleading or so badly articulated that the happy outcomes reported may be figments of the poor writing skills.

But he asks an important question still. Are American consumers shifting their buying behavior in a fundamental way towards goods and services that they believe will have a lower impact on the Earth than those they have become accustomed to purchase? The answer comes in two parts. First, have their values changed? Has caring for the Earth crept up a notch in the preference ordering? Or are behaving in an inauthentic way, responding to the dominant social conversation that whispers "no no" in their ears as they reach for old box of Tide instead of the concentrated washing detergent?

The second part of the question has to do with the "green" goods and services these consumers are buying. Are these really significantly better than the ones they have replaced? Are the purchasers asking themselves about more fundamental life style changes that might have much bigger impacts than the choice of detergents? Or are these purchases actually putting off such conversations and potential consequential actions by lowering the level of guilt or other reactive drivers.

My sustainability thesis is that good and services must be redesigned to help our lost consumers find themselves again. People must care for the Planet in a meaningful, authentic way before they will act beyond buying green goods to preserve the environment. There is nothing about these reports that suggests that consumers have any sense that feeding the "having" mode of existence (consumption) is itself at the root of the unsustainability crisis. Even the current financial crunch might be traced to the addiction to consumption and having, driven by a handful of people for whom having billions was not enough.

Green artifacts are almost always manifestations of ecoefficient alternatives. Natural goods are means to provide equivalent or greater "value," but at a lower impact. These solutions are always temporary. Ten percent increase in ecoefficiency is completely lost when the economy increases by the same ten percent. And I am quite sure that all those buying green goods are very interested in seeing the economy recover and keep growing.

At the end of his article Makower asks again:

What's the truth behind consumers' seeming irrational exuberance for green? I'd love to know.

Joel, I think the answer, with, of course, the usual qualifier that people's behavior runs all over the place, is that these polls do not provide an accurate description. The message in the marketplace we call our economy (or at least called it until a few months ago) is still "consume to make yourself happy," now coupled to another one, "buy green and you will be even happier." My model of social behavior splits behavioral explanations into two parts. One is the embodied rules coming from the societal milieu that do the real job; the other is the explanation we give when asked why we did or do something? It s only coincidence when the two are the same. Economists discovered that the technique called contingent valuation, asking people how much they would spend under a hypothetical situation, gave untrustworthy results. Market researchers rarely ask questions that expose "real" behavioral drivers.

With green so much in the news these days, I do not find it at all surprising that people express "exuberance" when asked by a market researcher how they feel about buying things. They are seeing and hearing about "green jobs" every day. Climate change talk is ubiquitous. Increasing gasoline prices and the Detroit "bailout" chatter center on "green' cars. I am sure these social conversations are strong influences of action in the market place because that's the only place the the green images in the body can get played out. There are no green cars or green jobs available to be had yet.