Chapter 2: Consumers with a Conscience

Jacquelyn A. Ottman

The notion of a "typical green consumer" continues to be elusive. Unlike discreet target groups such as Hispanic women or college-aged men, green consumers are hard to define demographically. Greenness extends throughout the population to varying degrees, and because green concerns are extremely diverse, encompassing a wide range of issues from global climate change and gritty smokestacks, to graffiti or lawnmower noise on Saturday mornings.

However, research into recent buyers of green products and empirical evidence suggests those consumers most receptive to environmentally oriented marketing appeals are educated women, 30-44, with $30,000-plus household incomes (see Exhibit 2.1). They are motivated by a desire to keep their loved ones free from harm and to make sure their children’s future is secure. Influential in their community, they rally support for local environmental clubs and social causes. Their buying power and their potential to influence their peers makes them a highly desirable marketing target.

That women are in the forefront of green purchasing cannot be underestimated. They do most of the shopping and although it sounds sexist, they may naturally exhibit a maternal consideration for the health and welfare of the next generation. Poll after poll shows that women place a higher importance on environmental and social purchasing criteria than men. This may reflect differences in feelings of vulnerability and control between the sexes, leading men to feel relatively less threatened by environmental ills. However, not all green consumers are as "deep green" or as active as the women discussed here–there is a host of more passive green consumers as well.

Many Shades of Green

In conventional marketing, demographics are often a key determinant of intent to buy specific products. But in green marketing, what seems to determine willingness to purchase environmentally conscious products - more than demographics or even levels of concern for a specific environmental issue - are consumers' feelings of being able to act on these issues, or empowerment.1

After all, consumers may be concerned about a specific issue like fumes emanating from the local power plant or protecting a local wildlife sanctuary and have the time or money to act - but if they do not believe they can make a difference, they will likely not act.?

Research has corroborated that the most accurate predictor of individuals willing to pay a premium for renewable energy was not education or income, but membership in - or prior contributions to -environmental groups. Supporters of such utility "green pricing" programs are "surprisingly diverse, including both urban professionals and rural families."2

Levels of concern and feelings of empowerment, not surprisingly, vary among the population. A segmentation of consumers isolated by Roper ranges from a 15 percent core of educated, upscale individuals who say they are willing to pay a premium or forego certain conveniences to ensure a cleaner environment, to 37 percent of the public who are doggedly non-environmentalist, characterized more by indifference than by anti-environmentalist leanings. The in-betweeners are more or less pro-environmental–they label themselves "environmentalists" when pollsters ask, but for various reasons are not fully acting on their concerns (see Exhibit 2.2).

Roper has tracked these segments of consumers since 1990. As of 1996, the five segments, which have exhibited only modest movement overall since first identified, break out as in the following table.

True Blues. This 10 percent of the population hold strong environmental beliefs and live them. The most ardent of environmentalists, they believe they can personally make a difference in curing environmental ills. Politically and socially active, they dedicate time and energy to environmentally safe practices themselves and they attempt to influence others to do the same. True Blues are six times more apt to contribute money to environmental groups and over four times more likely to shun products made by companies that are not environmentally responsible. Among the most educated of the five groups, these people are likely to be white females living in the Midwest or South. Almost one-third of them hold executive or professional jobs.

Greenbacks. Greenbacks, representing just 5 percent of the US population, are so named because of their willingness to pay extra for environmentally preferable products. They make up that small group of consumers who say they will pay up to 22 percent more for green. They worry about the environment and support environmentalism, yet feel too busy to change their lifestyles. Although Greenbacks are generally not politically active, they are happy and eager to express their beliefs with their wallets; green purchasing within this group is very high.

Like the True-Blues, they are more likely than the average American to purchase any number of green products such as environmentally preferable cleaning products, and products and packages that are made from recycled material or that can be refilled. Moreover, at 22 percent, they are twice as likely as the average American to avoid buying products from companies they perceive as environmentally irresponsible. Greenbacks are likely to be married white males living in the Midwest (35 percent) and West (24 percent). They are well educated, young (median age 37), and are more likely than any of the other groups to hold white-collar jobs.

Sprouts. One-third of the US population is classified as Sprouts. They are willing to engage in environmental activities from time to time but only when it requires little effort. Thus, recycling, which is curbside in many communities, is their main green activity. They read labels for greenness - although less often than the True-Blues and Greenbacks neighbors. Their greenness ends at the supermarket check-out: even though Sprouts and Greenbacks have similar median incomes, Sprouts generally won’t choose a green product if it is more expensive than others on the shelf. When they do, they are only willing to pay up to 4 percent extra. More than half (56 percent) are female and at 43, they have the highest median age of any of the five groups. Sprouts are distributed evenly across the country. They are well educated, and just under two-thirds of them are married. They comprise the swing group that can go either way on any environmental issue. With more education, they are often the source for new Greenbacks and True-Blues.

Grousers. Fifteen percent of the U.S. population are Grousers. These people do not believe that individuals play any significant part in protecting the environment. Instead, they feel the responsibility belongs to the government and large corporations. Often confused and uninformed about environmental problems, 45 percent of Grousers recycle bottles and cans regularly, but grudgingly; they do so to comply with local laws rather than to contribute to a better environment. They are far more likely than any other group, including the Basic Browns, to use excuses to rationalize their lax environmental behavior. True to their name, Grousers complain that they are too busy, that it is hard to get involved, that green products cost too much and don’t work as well, and, finally, that everything they do will be inconsequential in the whole scheme of things. Their overall attitude is that it is someone else’s problem, so why bother. Demographically, Grousers are similar to the national average, although with a somewhat higher proportion of African-American members.

Basic Browns. Representing 37 percent of the population, Basic Browns are not tuned in or turned onto the environment. They are simply not convinced that environmental problems are all that serious. Basic Browns do not make excuses for their inactivity; they just don’t care. The indifference of this group makes them less than half as likely as the average American to recycle and only 1 percent boycott products for environmental reasons as opposed to the 11 percent national average. Three percent buy recycled goods compared to 18 percent nationally. The largest of the five groups, Basic Browns have the lowest median income, the lowest level of education, and live disproportionately in the South. For the Basic Browns, there are just too many other things to worry about.

As noted in Exhibit 2.3, environmental behavior varies significantly across these segments, suggesting that not all categories of products or individual brands are affected equally by consumers’ environmental concerns. A close look at the behavior of the most active segment, the True Blues, demonstrates the relative depth of their commitment. Given their societal influence, this suggests the types of behavior that can be expected from a much bigger group of consumers in the future. More than half of the True Blues return glass bottles, look for green messages on packages, recycle newspapers, and do the laundry with "biodegradable" detergents. As social and style leaders, their forceful presence can be expected to exert increasing pressure particularly on the Greenback Greens and the Sprouts–underscoring the opportunities of marketers who can win over these influential True-Blues.

Three Deep Green Sub-Segments. Not all deep green activists are alike. It is possible to further segment them into three groups mirroring the major types of environmental issues and causes: Planet Passionates, Health Fanatics, and Animal Lovers (see Exhibit 2.4).

With the goals of protecting wildlife and keeping the environment pristine for recreational purposes, Planet Passionates focus on issues relating to land, air, and water. They recycle bottles and cans, avoid overpackaged products, clean up bays and rivers, and boycott tropical hardwood.

As implied by their name, Health Fanatics focus on the health consequences of environmental problems. They worry about getting cancer from too much exposure to the sun, genetic defects from radiation and toxic waste, and the long term impacts on their children’s health of pesticides on fruit. Health fanatics frequent natural food stores, buy bottled water, and eat organic foods.

Animal Lovers, the third major group of deep greens, protect animal rights. They boycott tuna and fur, and their favorite causes include manatees and spotted owls. Animal Lovers check to see if products are "cruelty-free." They are likely to be vegetarians.

Green Consumer Psychology and Buying Strategies

Although they express their environmental concerns in individual ways, green consumers are motivated by universal needs (see Exhibit 2.5). These needs translate into new purchasing strategies with implications for the way products are developed and marketed.

Need for Control

Green consumers put familiar products under a magnifying glass of environmental scrutiny, and their buzzwords signifying environmental compatibility abound. Starting in the late 1980's, such terms as "recyclable," "biodegradable," and "environmentally friendly" made cash registers ring throughout upper-middle-class neighborhoods from coast to coast. As we approach the millennium, "sustainable," "compostable," and "bio-based" are being added to the list.

As shown in Exhibit 2.6, the broad scope of these buzzwords suggest that green consumers scrutinize products at every phase of their life cycle, from raw material procurement, manufacturing, and production, straight through to product re-use, repair, recycling, or eventual disposal. While in-use attributes continue to be of primary importance, environmental shopping agendas now increasingly encompass factors consumers can’t feel or see. They want to know how raw materials are procured and where they come from, how food is grown, and what their potential impact is on the environment once they land in the trash bin.

As a second control strategy, green consumers patronize manufacturers and retailers they trust and boycott the wares of suspected polluters. In the absence of complete knowledge about a product's environmental characteristics, purchasing from upright manufacturers and retailers provides an added layer of assurance that products are safe.?

At 11 percent, a near record number of consumers boycott brands of companies with poor environmental track records (see Exhibit 2.3). Apple growers well remember the boycott waged in 1989 by mothers who feared the long-term effects of the Alar pesticide on their children’s health. In 1995, to protest French nuclear tests in the Pacific, wine drinkers targeted the 25 million - 30 million bottle harvest of Beaujolais. The market for Beaujolais "all but collapsed" in Japan, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia, and "disappeared" in Australia and New Zealand close to the testing.3

As a final control strategy, a small but growing number of consumers now search for simpler times. In 1991, researchers for the Yankelovich Monitor reported on a long-term trend that showed new products, the lifeblood of marketers, were losing appeal. They attributed this to two factors - a growing dislike for shopping in general and the perception that "new" is risky.4 For proof, consider what's happening to women's shopping habits.

The New York Times reports that women’s apparel sales are on a long-term slide (from a record $84 billion set in 1989 to $73 billion in 1995), despite a thirty seven percent gain in overall personal spending during the same period. Apparently, women are deciding there are better ways to spend their money than shopping. Picking up the slack are "other passions, from one’s children to investing, to a variety of goods and services being marketed as salves for a stressful life: backpacking trips and gardening tools, vanilla-scented candles, spiritual retreats and manicures."5

Women are not the only ones tired of the "live-to-work, work-to-consume" rat race. A nationwide survey conducted for the Merck Family Fund shows that most Americans are concerned about materialistic values and the impact of indulgent consumption on our environment. According to the poll, 82 percent of Americans agree that "Most of us buy and consume far more than we need." Suggesting that consumers intuitively understand that today’s lifestyles are unsustainable, 58 percent say it would make a "big difference" in helping the environment "if we taught our children to be less materialistic."6 Attempting to reconcile values centered on family, responsibility and community, more than a quarter said that "in the past five years, they had voluntarily made changes in their life which resulted in making less money in order to have a more balanced life." When asked what would make them happier, two-thirds said they wanted to spend more time with family and friends.

The mass consumer is still ambivalent about how to reconcile his/her values with present consumption modes. However, a small but growing number of consumers address their needs to protect the environment, enhance spirituality, reduce stress, and build long term financial security with strategies such as avoiding unnecessary purchases; buying high quality, durable products; and using products that do several jobs. Representing a growing movement called Voluntary Simplicity, these lean consumers account for an estimated 4 percent of the Baby Boomers, and are projected to represent 15 percent by the year 2000 as the current simplifiers are joined by youngsters now in their early teens.7

Not to be confused with the back-to-basics crowd of the early 1970s, this small but growing contingent of upscale, educated adults do not reject consumption out of hand; some have secondhand BMWs in the driveway and designer clothes among their pared down and largely monochromatic (black/white/gray) wardrobes. They happily trade in high-powered jobs and the hefty incomes they provide to spend additional time with loved ones, appreciate nature, and pursue creative activities. Expect their ways to depress sales of new homes, convenience foods, and second cars, while at the same time accelerating momentum in natural foods, easy-to-care-for clothes with classic styles, travel and other leisure pursuits.



CASE STUDY: Profile of a Simplifier

Kathy Bryant was living the American Dream. As an editor, writer, and photographer for Duke Power in Charlotte, North Carolina, her career was in the fast lane. But a key element was missing from her life.?

In 1988 when her father died, Kathy realized she was too far from her home and family in College Park, Maryland–a town her great-grandfather had founded.?

She called her uncle, a career utility executive, for advice. He urged her to "get off the phone and tell your boss you are quitting." She did.?

A week before moving home she received an offer for freelance work. With her mother’s support, Kathy restructured her life and work. As a freelancer, she controls when and for whom she works. She loves the variety of jobs she has done–including photographing Al Gore and Queen Elizabeth–opportunities she never would have had otherwise. And her mother benefits too. Kathy provides companionship, helps care for the house, and encourages her mother to be active. Her mother is no longer lonely but thrives on the activity.?

"I am really happy since I moved home. I cherish the time with my mother, the time in my garden. I can garden all day if I want," says Kathy. Managing her time required some discipline, she notes, as did learning to tailor her spending needs to her new income.?

Kathy thinks not in terms of money and career, but in terms of life and happiness. She has learned to live with less by eliminating small items like magazine subscriptions. When considering a purchase, she thinks about the articles she needs to write to pay for it. Being more deliberate about her purchases makes her spending "more real".?

"Too much of our ‘throw away society’ is based on creating and consuming," says Kathy. "Leading an alternative lifestyle demonstrates that you can consume less and have a very good life."?

Kathy defines herself not in terms of career choices, but life choices. She values the opportunity to create her own life. She looks for fun ways to make money, and volunteers with local organizations.?

The quality of Kathy’s life has increased dramatically, as has the quality of her work. "This is," admits Kathy, "the golden period of my life." She has found the vital ingredients previously absent–self-respect, self-definition and satisfaction. That is Kathy Bryant’s equation for fulfillment.8


A final control strategy relates to health, and it is best depicted in the revolution that is now underway called "clean food." Described as "a new standard for health and reliability," clean foods are "free of artificial preservatives, coloring, irradiation, synthetic pesticides, fungicides, rodenticides, ripening agents, fumigants, drug residues and growth hormones," and exclude those that are "processed, packaged, transported and stored to retain maximum nutritional value."

Motivated in part by lack of trust in government's ability to keep food pure, the appeal of clean foods has fueled escalating sales for organic produce, bottled water, health-food supermarkets, alternative medical treatments, and dietary supplements.9

Clean food and organic food provide irresistible aesthetic and spiritual benefits as well. According to Alice Waters, one of the first chefs to stress the importance of locally grown, organic food for its taste and environmental preferability, "It’s also a connection with the kind of food that is alive, fresh, seasonal and a connection with the people who are growing it. A deep and lasting sensual connection is made, and once you eat food like that, you can’t turn back."10

Keep an eye on this trend. Now representing a small (3 percent) portion of the population of those most concerned about food and its relation to health, by one analyst’s estimate, it could engage up 30 percent of the population in the next 20 years by one analyst's estimate.11

Need to Make a Difference

Reflecting a deeply felt need of Baby Boomers to assume responsibility for their actions, green consumers want to feel that they can, at least in some small way, make a difference. It is no coincidence that they respond to such empowering promises as those represented by the best seller, 50 Simple Things You Can Do To Save the Earth. This need stems as much from a desire for control, as it does from the corresponding need to alleviate guilt.

Consumers feel especially guilty about environmental ills they can do something about but do not. They readily acknowledge the role their own consumption in despoiling the environment (see Exhibit 2.7), and while they feel they have improved slightly since the early 1990s, they rate themselves just a little better than large businesses when asked "Who's Dragging Their Feet on Environmental Protection?" (see Exhibit 2.8). They see themselves as being able to do little to fix serious problems like global climate change or ozone layer depletion. However, they do feel a responsibility to cut down on excess packaging, and take steps like recycling and conserving water.

Everyday behavior such as disposing of what is perceived as excessive packaging or keeping the water running while shaving, can serve as daily reminders of personal environmental transgressions. Use of products that are, rightfully or wrongfully, associated with environmental blight–disposable diapers, plastic foam cups, and aerosol spray cans–reinforces their guilt.

Consumers' desire to alleviate guilt manifests itself in indirect ways. New mothers may continue to use Pampers knowing they will wind up in a landfill. However, to compensate, they may go out of their way to recycle the family’s bottles, cans and newspapers to help offset the space in the landfill taken up by the diaper. This compensatory behavior suggests that each consumer has a unique repertoire of activities and trade-offs he or she is willing to make to help out the planet. One’s environmental repertoire likely reflects such factors as age, lifestyle, income, and particular environmental interests and concerns, as well as geographic location, including access to recycling and other after-use or disposal options. Consumers’ feelings of guilt and eco-inadequacy have not been assuaged since the early 1990s; a lengthening list of environmentally driven activities and purchasing continues to fill the gaps.

Green consumers are by definition, very sincere in their intentions. As much as they are willing to do today, as their knowledge and commitment grows, they become more aware of what else they can do. The gap between what they feel they should be doing and what they are now doing makes them feel guilty and sometimes defensive. Purchasing green products and taking measures around the house give environmentally concerned consumers a psychic lift by helping them align beliefs with actions. For instance, anecdotal evidence suggests that consumers feel positively reinforced by recycling (typically one of their first steps down the path to green). Once engaged, they start asking, "What else can I do?" The significantly high levels of recycling that now occur may provide one explanation for the current rebound in green-product purchasing.

Need for Information

Consumers heading off to supermarkets and health food stores in search of greener goods need to know how to tell the "green" products from the "brown" ones, which stores or catalogs to find them in, and how to spot the products and packages that can be recycled in their community. Their task is tricky.

Such environmentally preferable products as mercury-free alkaline batteries or paper towels made from recycled content are oftentimes indistinguishable from "brown" ones. Some green products with as yet limited appeal like low-flow showerheads and citrus-based cleaning products are often tucked away in health food shops and direct mail catalogs beyond the reach of mainstream shoppers. Such alternative cleaning products as baking soda and white vinegar are easily found in supermarkets but are not necessarily labeled as "green".

Products representing new and unfamiliar technologies are constantly being launched onto supermarket shelves. Consumers' understanding of environmental issues is growing but continues to be low – only 8 percent of consumers claim to know a lot about environmental issues.12 So even the most environmentally enthused consumers need to be educated on why some types of products represent less environmental harm than others. Providing such information and education still represents the biggest opportunity to expand the market to mainstream consumers.

Information aimed at filling in consumers’ knowledge gaps is now in plentiful supply. Sources include manufacturers; packaging; advertising; consumer media, including several green shopping sites on the World Wide Web; and the specialty environmental press composed of consumer-oriented magazines, including E, Mother Jones, and Utne Reader, as well as such advocacy group publications as Sierra, Audubon, Worldwatch, and Amicus Journal. Although much of the information is more consistent and less confusing than its late 1980s counterparts, a profusion of labels, claims, eco-seals and images on products and packaging, as well as inconsistent media stories, often confuses and frustrate consumers who are just beginning to give green products another try.

Win consumers over by educating them with clear consistent information about the environmental issues associated with your products.

Need to Maintain Lifestyle

Although a small number of highly committed consumers will sacrifice in the name of altruism, the great majority of consumers, understandably, are still not prepared to give up such coveted product attributes such as performance, quality, convenience, or price. Product efficacy continues to strongly influence consumer purchase decisions. As too many green marketers learned the hard way, environmentally preferable products still need to work, and they still must be priced competitively or project superior primary benefits in order to attract a wide market.?

For the great many working women - and working mothers in particular - short-term, immediate concerns like getting through the day often preempt longer-term and more remote environmental goals. Greened-up versions of major products such as super-concentrated laundry detergents available at local supermarkets meet their needs and sell well as a result. Consumers want the products they buy to be delivered in a safe, sanitary, and attractive manner. Their desire to buy products with minimal packaging conflicts with their greater needs for safety (e.g., tamperproof lids) and convenience (e.g. microwavable food).

Historically, how food looks determined its appetite appeal and perceived purity. This is slowly changing, due largely in part to education efforts on the part of organic growers as well as more effective distribution methods. Fewer consumers now need to choose between organically grown apples with an inconsistent appearance and perfect-looking apples ripened with chemical agents.

Resistance to paying a premium will not go away any time soon. Many consumers simply cannot afford to pay extra for any types of products, green or not; today's consumers are especially spoiled by everyday low-pricing strategies and mass merchandiser discounting. Although wallets are gradually opening wider for green goods as a result of increased education, most consumers are still not willing to pay extra money upfront for products that promise a long-term payback such as energy-efficient refrigerators or light bulbs.

The inconsistent or even downright poor quality of green products offered in days gone by–low-flow shower heads that sputtered and green-hued fluorescent lighting that flickered, for example–seems to have given their modern day successors a bad name. Happily, most of today's crop of green products adeptly combine performance with environmental quality. Now that they can have their cake and eat it too, expect mainstream consumers to drop more green products into their shopping carts in the years ahead.

In the past, premium pricing and vaguely worded environmental claims made consumers suspect manufacturers of price gouging. If they are smaller, more compact, or simpler looking than their "brown" counterparts, by their own calculations consumers intuitively believe products should cost less, not more. But this is slowly changing. For example, a small but growing number of consumers seek out products and packaging that have been "source reduced." This is particularly true in the 1,800 or so U.S. municipalities that have volume-based, "pay as you throw" household waste-disposal fees, where consumers are typically charged for each bag of waste they drop at the curb.

Historical reluctance to pay a premium for green goods seems to be softening, as consumers connect environmental responsibility with health or other direct benefits. Sales of organically grown "clean" foods, natural cosmetics, and cottons grown without pesticides demonstrates that when it comes to green products, the greater the self interest, the greater the perceived threat, the greater the willingness to pay. The small but growing Voluntary Simplifier movement suggests that a small number of consumers will even go so far as to change jobs or rearrange their lifestyles altogether if the rewards of more time and a richer life are present.?

The success stories of the many marketers who are developing greener products that balance consumers' primary needs with environmental responsibility are told in the next chapter.


1. This is also referred to as "perceived consumer effectiveness" in "Green Consumers in the 1990s: Profile and Implications for Advertising," James A. Roberts, Baylor University, Journal of Business Research, Volume 36, p. 226.

2. Baugh, Keith, Brian Byrnes, Clive Jones, and Maribeth Rahimzadeh, "Green Pricing: Removing the Guesswork," Public Utilities Fortnightly, August 1995, p. 27.

3. Whitney, Craig R., "Nuclear Tests Cutting Sales of Beaujolais," New York Times, November 17, 1995, p. A10.

4. Hayward, Susan of Yankelovich, Clancy, and Shulman, presentation to the American Marketing Association’s "Environmental Conference: Green Marketing from a Marketer’s Perspective," October 1991.

5. Steinhauer, Jennifer and Constance C. R. White, "Women’s New Relationship with Fashion," New York Times, August 5, 1996, p. D9.

6. "Yearning for Balance: Views of Americans on Consumption, Materialism, and the Environment," prepared for the Merck Family Fund by the Harwood Group, Bethesda, Maryland, July 1995.

7. Valdes, Alisa, "Living Simply. ‘90s Style Means Earning Less to Enjoy Life More," The Boston Globe, September 1, 1994, p. A3.

8. Barry, Sam, "Kathy Bryant Profile," Co-op America Quarterly, Number 37, Summer 1995, p. 22.

9. Burros, Marian, "A New Goal Beyond Organic: Clean Food," The New York Times, February 7, 1996, p. C1.

10. Ibid., p. C4.

11. Ibid., p. C4

12. Roper Starch Worldwide, Green Gauge, 1995.