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Do Customers Really Care About Green?

August 16, 2012

As someone who champions green certified homes, I am certain this is the question that I get asked the most. The answer is yes, but before I tell you why let me digress with a recent personal anecdote.

This past weekend I was shopping for some laundry stain booster. If you don’t know what that is you probably don’t have either toddlers or baseball players in your house – I have both. Needless to say, I use a lot of this product. My favorite brand was on sale in two versions – the standard version and the “PERFUME & DYE FREE” version. Not needing perfumes or dyes and just wanting the stain removal powers, I was about to select the “FREE” version. But wait … the FREE version cost a lot more! While I didn’t really want or need the added smells and colors, it galled me that the version that was presumably more “pure” with fewer added raw materials cost more.

Herein lies the green marketing lesson. Consumers do care about green, but just because a product has green attributes doesn’t mean that they believe it should cost more. I do pay more for some green attributes that are very important to me. But just because a product has a green label and conspicuous green packaging doesn’t mean that I will pay more. In fact, it just might make me cranky enough to taint my opinion of the brand and write an email to complain. Which I did (only to receive a coupon to make up for the company’s shameless greenwashing, but I digress).

What’s to be learned from this experience?

Performance matters. For a consumer to purchase a green product it must perform at least as well as a product that doesn’t have green attributes. Of course, performance can be measured in a number of ways, and the more complex the product the more complicated the performance indicators. Let’s start with green cleaners as a basic product category. Method is one of the fastest-growing private companies in America. They had two products goals: make cleaners that you didn’t want to hide in a cabinet (performance = aesthetics); and make cleaners without any dirty ingredients (performance = environmentally-friendly). On their website they have five listed attributes –the first being “clean.” No one was going to buy a cleaning product that didn’t clean, at least not more than once. Homes are a much more complex product than cleaning agents, but the same principle applies. People want their home to perform. Without question that include aesthetics and design – I don’t believe we will ever see a large housing market for yurts as they simply don’t fit into our national ideal of what a home looks like. Second, they want comfortable spaces that are cool in the summer and warm in the winter and affordable to heat and cool. Third, they want healthy indoor environments free of harmful pollutants or excessive moisture where they can live safely and raise families.

Green is mainstream. According to “Mainstream Green,” completed by Ogilvy & Mather in April 2011, 16% of Americans identify as Super Greens. These are people whose everyday behavior is modified to ensure that their impact on the environment is lessened in one way or another. A much more impressive statistic is that two-thirds of Americans (66%) identify as Upper & Middle Greens. These are consumers who are following the green movement, as opposed to leading it, but green influences their purchasing decisions so long as it doesn’t cost too much. This group is also largely motivated by personal interests, so if you offer a product that has green attributes, provides them a benefit, and helps save the environment, it’s a win-win. These two groups together account for 82% of consumers influenced by green product offerings – do you really care if you are not selling to the other 18%? And, to be clear, there may be a percentage of this latter group that is influenced by your green product but not for strictly environmental reasons. Energy independence and nationalism are alternative reasons for some consumers to favor attributes like energy efficiency.

Certification matters. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently commissioned a study that found 80% of respondents believed certification by independent, third-party organizations provides extra credibility and assurance. So you don’t take my word for it, defer to the FTC. Certification matters, so long as it is the right type … which I’ll discuss another day. Stay tuned!



Art W
August 17, 2012 10:08 PM

"Both replys have good points. With regard to the percentage numbers, I believe it is expressed on the general public and consumer brand effects, which is not particularly a relation to the building industry and its Green affects. To me a more critical but distant evolvement is in yout and not always our current client base. As the green movement does evolve it will become more mainstream through youth of today that grow up with the concept ingrained. Parents are being schooled children more than children are being schooled by parents with relation to green (my personal preference is energy efficiency and environmental responsibility - I know, too long).
As Paul states, clients are interested, but not always enthused unless as Michelle states there is 'value'.
I also agree with what appears to be price gouging of basic home use products and food that are natural, or clean. This is also a concern with the products we use for our business. I've just recently been introduced to a spray product for an alternative to house wrap, that the installer projected a comparable price to the combination of typical house wrap, sealing, caulking and the required labor. My question was 'why so expensive? Materials probably equaled material cost, but labor would realistically go down. Mmmm price should go down! We all want to make a profit, let's just be reasonable."

Kent M
August 17, 2012 6:53 PM

"The green percentages are interesting... our experience would say the numbers are lower. Either way- green terminology is an uphill battle due to false claims and underperforming products and the hippy, hemp, & the hay bale perceptions. We need to earn the trust back one customer at a time..."
Paul S.
August 17, 2012 11:46 AM

"In my experience, unfortunately they do NOT. Since new custom construction slowed to a crawl in our market, remodeling became the face of the market. Most of our clients have graduate degrees, yet their knowledge of healthy and sustainable building is close to zero. Educating the clients at the project proposal stage is a good effort, but for the most part too late. Some have very strong notions of what goes on in their houses and those are extremely difficult to dispel. Others are so hopelessly unaware of basic building science concepts that it becomes for them too overwhelming to understand both their remodeling goals and building science at the same time.

The main roles of NAHB and other groups should include much larger public awareness campaigns. Without educated customers we are just selling another product, and like many other things, the "green" fad might be short lived. This is exacerbated by the ever shifting "green" label. What today is "green", might not be "green" enough tomorrow and that leaves the more critically thinking client wondering: market hype or true good?"