Saturday, September 13, 2008

Knowing Green

While I've yet to buy her book, I love the site Diane's Big Green Purse.  She writes about how we can go greener by effective use of our purchasing power.  It's a message that makes a lot of sense to me.  It takes years and years and years to change and enforce government regulation, but we can become better educated, more thoughtful consumers almost immediately.

Except that trying to buy green truly makes my eyes cross.  In a few categories - paper products, for example - I feel like the guidelines are straightforward and the products readily available.  If they're more expensive, we've offset the increase by using rags instead of paper towels and handkerchiefs instead of tissues.

But cleaning products?  I'm lost.  And while Skin Deep's database makes some decisions easier, I'm often frustrated to discover that companies using organic ingredients and signing the compact against animal testing aren't necessarily producing the safest products.

Diane recently did a post calling for clearer standards so consumers could make intelligent decisions.  But what interested me was the summary she posted of an Eco Pulse study on how shoppers think about the green factor of their purchases:
  • Half said that a company's environmental record is important.
  • Less than a quarter said that they'd actually chosen one product over another because it was greener. 
  • Only 7% could name the product.
So not great news, but progress, right?  At least there's more awareness than there was once upon a time.  But there's also a lot of confusion, and having tried to become an educated consumer, I can completely understand. 

What's so interesting to me about this is that it's a huge market.  If you've heard about Chris Anderson's The Long Tail:  Why The Future of Business is Selling Less of More, you've heard about the idea that a niche product can be a big, profitable hit because of the lower costs associated with the changing marketplace.  The study was sparked by noticing how many of Amazon's sales were driven by fairly obscure titles.  You could never find them on the shelf at Borders, but there's plenty of demand out there to drive sales.  The same goes for Netflix.  Yes, it's more convenient to have movies come to our mailbox.  But more than that, they readily turn up the arthouse foreign flicks that Franklin prefers.

Back the eco part of the story.  My family is inclined to be brand loyal.  I tend to buy the exact same things, week after week after week, stocking up when they're on sale and making changes only after a lot of thought.  In a very few categories, I'll buy one of two or three products, but I'm not the woman standing in the grocery store with a calculator and a coupon file.  Okay, I have the coupon file, but I only clip them for brands we routinely buy.

As I become more frustrated by the difficulties of buying green, I'm simply favoring new brands.  The staples of our household are no longer Procter & Gamble or Johnson & Johnson, but Seventh Generation, Green Forest, Method, Burt's Bees (even though they're owned by Clorox) and Tom's of Maine, along with a few other alternative brands and products.

Because there's no organic market within walking distance, I buy most of these products at our local Target and Giant.  I'm perfectly willing to figure out where to buy the greener product and behave accordingly.  But I move slowly - I changed our cleaning products first; I'm just working through our health and beauty products.

But a green certification process?  I would change 90% of our shopping decisions immediately.  We greened our paper in a matter of weeks thanks to this guide from the National Resources Defense Council.  

So here's our household's answer to the study:
  • A company's environmental record is one of the most important issues for our purchasing decisions.  Whenever possible, my dollars go to good corporate citizens.
  • We routinely choose greener products over others, and sometimes delay purchasing decisions because nothing seems quite green enough.  This especially applies to our consumables - paper, cleaning products, healthy & beauty - but increasingly also applies to our clothing and even major purchases.
  • Can I name them?  You betcha!  Besides Seventh Generation, Method, Tom's of Maine and Burt's Bees, there's also Simple and Keen footwear, Sigg bottles ... and counting.
The message to corporate America?  Get greener.  It's the only way into my wallet.

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