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Green Consumers: Do Best Intentions Become Good Deeds?

by Kathy Sheehan , 10.06.2014

The following is an excerpt from the recently published Sustainability: How the Cosmetics Industry Is Greening Up (John Wiley & Sons). Sheehan’s chapter draws on GfK’s Roper Reports® research, which for over 20 years has been segmenting consumers (in the US and 25 other world markets) on a spectrum of “greenness”.

Today’s green consumers are more sophisticated and multi-faceted than yesterday’s hippie stereotypes would suggest. And, it is even simplistic to say that green consumers in developed economies have similar attitudes compared to those in developing ones.

Over the past twenty years, GfK Roper’s “Green Gauge” study has seen environmental concerns ebb and flow, in part based on current events that drive public opinion. Concerns about environmental pollutants usually spike after ecologic disasters. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, green concerns jumped, only to drop again two years later. Since 1992, the GfK Green Gauge study has surveyed Americans about their attitudes and beliefs about the environment and, in particular, how these beliefs translate into consumers’ behavior. Today, twice as many American indicate that they recycle (compared to 1992), and about 7 in 10 feel that they know a fair amount or more about environmental issues and problems --up from 5 in 10 during the mid ‘90s.

We also see patterns in buying behavior. For example, the days of an altruistic consumer accepting an inferior product or experience simply because it is a green alternative are behind us. Green products must have the quality and efficacy that the consumer expects from a “non-green” alternative. The easier you make it for a consumer to go green without compromise, the greater the chances of success and breaking out of a “green niche” into the mainstream.

Based on these and other attitudes and behaviors, we can segment consumers into five categories along the spectrum of “greenness.” These segments are:

  • Green InDeed: The most active in thought and action. Consumers who are knowledgeable with when and how to be green. If a product does not meet the needs of this very active group, they will complain about it via social media and word-of-mouth.
  • Carbon Cultured: A group with pro-environmental attitudes, but focused mostly on the easiest behaviors. Prevalent in developed markets with long-term national environmental agendas, they recycle and conserve energy and water – but rarely take on “harder” behaviors.
  • Green In Need: Consumers who are willing to be more eonvironmentally minded but cannot because of economic issues or lack of know-how. Given the right tools, this group could climb the environmental ladder.
  • Glamour Greens: Folks who use being “green” as a status symbol. This group has few core green values, but will participate when being green is fashionable and can be displayed.
  • Jaded: This group is skeptical – even hostile -- towards the green movement as a whole. But they will participate if actions are mandatory (i.e. recycling) or when they offer financial benefits (i.e. saving energy).


Segments can react quite differently depending on regions and economics. While companies like BURTS BEES have made green alternatives more easily available to the American consumer, a gradual growth in green consumption is not certain. On the one hand, we have an increasingly receptive audience for green products – recognizing that the individual can make a difference, but the same consumer is increasingly skeptical of green offerings in the marketplace and ever more critical when it comes to product efficacy and price. With environmental issues now more and more in front of consumers – how can brands effectively harness this increased awareness?

Marketers must address the emerging price and efficacy issues head on; products must be competitively priced and work well. ”Greenwashing” (claiming something is green when it really is not) can seriously threaten the movement and destroy brand credibility. With 24/7 media coverage, social media, and instant access to information, there is nowhere for brands to hide. Educate a consumer, since consumers continually cite lack of knowledge as a barrier to green living. Give them the practical knowledge they need to turn green thoughts into green actions.

Kathy Sheehan is Executive Vice President and General Manager of GfK’s Consumer Trends team. She can be reached at kathy.sheehan@gfk.com.