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Less Than 100: How Percentages Show True Understanding of Green Trends

Image credit: Cone Communications

In early March, Cone Communications teamed up with ORC International to conduct a survey of over 1,000 adults to better understand how consumers interpret and grapple with the flood of environmental information coming their way. The survey included many questions on how consumers seek out information, usage and disposal instructions, and how well they actually understand what it is that they are being told. The results are now a part of the 2013 Green Gap Trend Tracker and boil down to a series of statistics. Usually, a list of percentages can be tedious and meaningless if taken out of context. To help put the findings of the 2013 Green Gap Trend Tracker into context, I’ve listed the percentages in order of least hopeful to most.

48% of people feel overwhelmed by environmental messages.

This, to me, is the most upsetting. I understand in our world of constant marketing that any edge to sell a product is used. However, no one should feel overwhelmed by trying to maintain a sense of social responsibility — it should be easy and effortless.

69% of people think it is okay if a company is not environmentally perfect, as long as they are honest.

In second grade I was taught that honesty is the best policy. However, I think that large multinational companies are a bit past elementary school and consumers aren’t demanding enough from corporations. While transparency is always appreciated and necessary, it isn’t enough. What we need from consumers is not only the demand for honesty, but also the demand for change in the wake of said honesty.

78% of people will boycott a product if they discover its environmental claims to be misleading.

Whoa, there! Just because they are misleading it doesn’t mean they are all wrong. In tandem with the previous statistic, I would think that is better to have a company that uses sustainable practices and doesn't disclose it than one that doesn’t do anything at all. I certainly understand the feeling of betrayal and I endorse transparency in marketing, but if a product is still the most environmentally friendly option, it shouldn't be boycotted.

30% of people say they use their products responsibly.

42% of people say they dispose of their products responsibly.

This is where the disconnect between information and implementation comes into play. What are the barriers to people not using a product in an optimal way? Why aren’t people properly disposing of their products? As we will understand soon (don’t read ahead just yet!), the problem isn’t just with education but some logistical issue in between. Access and feasibility will always be the two biggest factors for people actually adopting a practice; I still don’t know where to recycle my electronics in my small town.

45% of people seek out environmental information.

This is almost reassuring. Almost. At least people are starting to feel responsibility personally and aren’t just waiting for information to come to them. Using simple math, it would seem that 2/3 of the people who seek out the information and then actually implement it in using the products. It’s a start.

60% of people say that they actually understand the environmental terms used in advertising.

On its own, this is a lovely little idea, but something tells me it’s a little too rosy. Let’s see how that breaks down in practice:

40% of all people think “green” or “environmentally friendly” means the product has a positive impact on the environment.

22% of all people think “green” or “environmentally friendly” means the product has a neutral impact on the environment.

22% of all people think “green” or “environmentally friendly” means the product just has a lighter impact than other products.

As I’m sure our dear readers know, only that last group truly grasps what these terms mean in marketing. So even though 60% think they understand the terms, it is actually closer to a paltry 22%. Yikes. It has become part of the advertising scheme to reduce complex concepts such as climate change and sustainability down to a couple of easy-to-use buzz words, but it is starting to confuse consumers too much. If all consumers want is transparency, then they also deserve transparency in their marketing. “Green” is not a magical catch-all word – it’s a problem.

71% of consumers consider the environment when they shop.

Who knows what this statistic actually means, but I will take it as a good thing. If forced to dig through the vagueness of the wording, it means the pervasive marketing of “green” and “environmentally friendly” has actually paid off by at least giving the consumer a sense of responsibility. Of course, there is still room for improvement.

71% of people seek out instructions on how to use a product responsibly.

66% of people seek out instructions on how to dispose of a product responsibly.

As consumers actually start to seek out information on their own, it is interesting to see where they turn to find what they need.

45% of all consumers say that they are most likely to use on-package resources for environmental information.

26% of all consumers say that they are most likely to use an online search.

Notice how those two percentages add up to 71% total? This subset of people who look for information can be divided into two groups: actively seeking it out and passively seeking it out. I actually agree with the 45% who use on-package resources. This way, you have a feeling of confidence that the corporation cares and that you know exactly what to do. An Internet search can turn up thousands of different solutions that will just cause 48% of people to be overwhelmed!

71% of people wish companies would do a better job helping them understand environmental terms.

85% of people want companies to educate them on how to use or dispose of their products responsibly.

It is great to see that people want corporate involvement. Any company that understands this key element will be successful. As this whole study has shown, people feel they don’t know enough and the blame lies on the company. These two statistics are perhaps the most powerful and should hopefully effect a change in packaging and marketing.

90% of people believe it is their responsibility to use and dispose of products responsibly.

I am choosing to end with this percentage for a number of reasons. 90% is by far the highest share of people engaging with sustainability on this survey. It also shows that we are at a point where the majority of the people at least understand that they are involved in the process. We are all culpable in polluting the environment, but we are all also capable of making a change. This statistic more than any other reflects the empowerment that consumers are feeling towards climate change. While this empowerment has yet to manifest itself completely, we are on the cusp of a change. Now that consumers understand that they are responsible, it is time to make the corporations responsible, too. Give us more information, be transparent and watch your company flourish.


Brady Hamed is a sustainability enthusiast and educator currently located in Rochester, NY. He spent the last four years working for a B.S. in Earth Systems from Stanford University ('12). After graduating in June, instead of following a career path,… [Read more about Brady Hamed]


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