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Let’s Not Get Carried Away

Several folks have forwarded me the article from the New York Times last week, all but declaring the death of green products.  Most of these emails have contained comments of concern, and more than a little nervousness.  To all of you who are concerned, I kindly say, “hang on a minute.”  To the New York Times I say, “shame on you.” (And I’m usually a pretty big fan of the Times.)

The gist of their article is that sales of green products from conventional brands have tanked.  The evidence they give is specifically in the cleaning products category, and they specifically cite sales of Clorox Green Works and a few S. C. Johnson products.  The problem here is that the headline makes a sweeping claim, “As consumers cut spending, ‘Green’ products lose allure,” that’s not really backed up in the article.  A few cleaning product brands’ sales being down does not constitute “all green products losing allure.”

Andrew Winston did an excellent job of summarizing this counterpoint in a post Tuesday on the Harvard Business Review.  I highly recommend giving it a read.

So I’m not going to re-tread what he said…rather, I’m going to take this from a consumer segmentation perspective, because that is, in fact, at the root of what’s happening in the cleaning products category.

First a piece of data:  In our Eco Pulse study we’ve tracked for three years the categories in which consumers are searching for greener products.  And we’ve watched the interest in searching for greener cleaning products decline steadily over the last three years.  Yet we’ve also seen interest in greener personal care products and appliances stay steady over the last three years, and interest in greener paper products stay steady over the last two years.  So, just to level set, not every category is experiencing a decline.

Join Suzanne and many other industry researchers at Sustainable Brands ’11 as we dig under the covers of current trends in sustainable brand building and explore how brand leaders are finding continued opportunity in environmental and social innovation!

And, certainly, “interest” and “buying” are two different things.  When it comes to buying you have two different sets of motivators:  intrinsic and extrinsic.  Extrinsic motivators are things like discounts, coupons and rebates. The Times article points out that people don’t want to pay more for green products, and there’s a great quote at the end from a Sarah Pooler in Evanston:  “If it’s green, and it’s a good deal, I’ll buy it.”  And so it goes for those who are extrinsically motivated — and those would be the more mainstream of consumers.  Folks we call Seekers and Skeptics.  They’re not buying green for green’s sake…and they will definitely need price parity and/or discounts to be moved.

These are the very consumers who have always bought Clorox, Windex and Scrubbing Bubbles, and trust those brands.  So these are the consumers who are interested in buying green versions of these brands.  But you see the paradox:  since these are also consumers who are very motivated by price, they’ll need “deals” to continue purchasing green version of these mainstream consumer brands.

Conversely, there’s a group we call the Actives, who are intrinsically motivated. They buy green because it’s a personal value to them.  It aligns with how they view themselves and the world, so they’ll buy green almost regardless of price.  Because these are folks who are better educated about what’s green and what’s not, they’ll be more distrustful of green versions of mainstream brands.  The Times article noted that sales of Seventh Generation and Method cleaning products are up…these are the brands Intrinsically Motivated Actives will trust, brands they formed a preference for years ago, and brands they don’t mind paying more for.

So that’s the actual story…and the conundrum for mainstream brands.  It’s difficult for them to appeal to the greener leaning of us, and those of us in the middle want a good deal. But that’s not a reason to throw in the towel and declare all green products “allure-less.”; just a reason to ensure the pricing strategy, positioning strategy and segmentation strategy are all in alignment.

Suzanne Shelton is CEO of Shelton Group, the nation’s leading marketing communications firm entirely focused in the sustainability and energy efficiency sectors. The company polls Americans on an ongoing basis to understand their drivers and obstacles to adopting more sustainable… [Read more about Suzanne Shelton]

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