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Posted: June 23, 2009

Who wants to be a greenionaire?

Why the sustainability movement has yet to fully tap mainstream America

Mary Butler

In an effort to understand why people buy eco-conscious products, marketing strategists Wendy Cobrda and Amy Hebard surveyed 30,000 people – and they learned that plenty of ordinary Americans buy green wares. However, they do it for very different reasons than the typical green consumer, and as a whole, the mainstream market for sustainable goods has yet to be tapped, the women told attendees of the Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability Forum in Boulder last week.

“We believe there’s a little green in everyone,” said Cobrda, CEO and co-founder of Earthsense, a Syracuse, N.Y.-based applied marketing company that blends market research and database marketing to glean consumer insights.

But, she said, most Americans, “need to be talked to differently.” 

Earthsense’s twice-a-year, geo-coded survey – which is sold as a syndicated database of consumer attitudes and behaviors toward the environment and sustainability – has shown the women many shades of green. It’s their goal to make buying sustainable products colorless, Hebard said.

Those surveyed are broken into 12 categories. Most Americans, 63 percent, fall into the categories: strivers, skeptics, detached, practicals and ambivalents, with the largest group, 30 percent, of those surveyed identified as “skeptics.” The remaining 37 percent are traditional LOHAS consumers: believers, enthusiasts, selectives and habituals, with “believers” making up 17 percent of respondents in that group and the largest segment. 

“The core for green buys 70 percent of green products,” Cobrda said. That leaves a huge window for expansion into the mainstream.

“Even the most hardened curmudgeon will do something that can be equated with being green,” she said. However, his or her reason for buying a sustainable product might be closely linked with price, trusting a particular brand or the quality of a product rather than reflecting a political belief or desire to reduce their carbon footprint, Cobrda said.

Thanks to detailed geographic information, the survey has allowed Earthsense to not only ask the question: Why do people recycle? But also determine whether those who aren’t recycling have the means to do so. “You might have the greatest intentions and values in the world,” Cobrda said. But without a local recycling program, there’s no way to follow through on those values, she said.

All this information, which can be sliced and diced anyway Earthsense’s customers want it, allows companies to “cut through the clutter” of often-righteous green product messages, the women said.

Most consumers, they said, are turned off by the politicization of living a sustainable lifestyle, and they “don’t want to be preached to, don’t what to be told it’s the right thing to do … they need to be talked to differently.”

Phrases such as “yoga-inspired,” “antioxidant-rich” “organically grown” and “fair trade” speak to the traditional LOHAS audience, they said. A simpler approach, tapping into senses, for instance, might help attract a different type of shopper. Cobrda said she’s a good example. A self-described “hedonistic” green consumer, she buys organic tomatoes to make salsa because they taste better. “A lot of people will buy things because they smell better and look better,” Cobrda said.

Hebard held up San Francisco-based Method, maker of personal and home care products, as an example of a company that “understands how consumers think about a product.”

Method’s founders call themselves “people against dirty” and introduce the brand on its website in three sentences: “Hi there. We make environmentally-friendly cleaning products that are safe for every home and every body. And we never test on animals (or people).” 

You’ll find Method on Target’s shelves, its baby products have been featured on the TV shows of Oprah and Ellen and even home-cooking guru Paula Deen featured Method’s wares in the April issue of her magazine.

According to Cobrda and Hebard, there's plenty of room in the marketplace for other green companies to claim similar bragging rights -- and change the world while they're at it.

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Mary Butler is ColoradoBiz's online editor.

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Readers Respond

The dictionary definition of green is in sync with green consumerism. -not fully processed, naive, not in line with worldly views If a greenionaire is someone who made money on green people thats not something to be proud of because ultimately it works against the environment. Its an oxymoron or a greenmoron or something. By Snowytrees on 2009 06 24

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