July 28, 2005

What makes a green consumer?

  • Understanding consumers goes beyond demographics and lifestyles.
    The Hartman Group


    In the same way that most people agree exercise is important, they also agree that a sustainable, clean environment is important. But only some walk their talk. To better understand which consumers buy green and why, we have to look beyond what consumers say they do, to examine what they actually do.

    First, there is no question that consumers are changing the way they buy. A variety of societal factors are driving consumers to increasingly seek out unique and differentiated products that fit their lifestyle.

    Consumer purchases of green or sustainable products are not just motivated by the products themselves, but by the values they represent. For some consumers, these values do not translate into actual behavior, while for others, they become a way of life.

    Consumer segments

    Understanding consumers and their values-driven behavior requires going beyond demographics and studying how they live. We've found that consumer behavior can best be understood through a segmentation model that uses a world perspective, where individuals most intensely involved in an activity are in the "core" of the world, individuals minimally involved are in the "periphery" and everyone else is in the middle, what we call the "mid-level" segment.

    In the case of green products or products with sustainable values, we find "sustainability" is not well defined for consumers in the periphery of the world. Many consumers in the periphery are not even familiar with the word sustainability, while green might be a vague concept. A periphery consumer, for example, will recycle to express her values, but only if it's convenient and to reduce her garbage bill.

    As we move into the mid-level, we see consumers making associations between sustainability and wellness — largely because they see green values associated with organic food. Mid-level consumers report that they purchase organic food because it is a physically healthier choice.

    While mid-level consumers profess an attitudinal commitment to green products, this attitude is not always enough to drive behavior. The reality is that many mid-level consumers, despite stated values, do not buy green products all of the time. For example, a mid-level consumer who chooses to buy organic produce might be aware that fair trade coffee is provided at his office, but doesn't understand how it's different than what he buys at his coffee shop to drink at home.

    In contrast, purchase behavior is very closely aligned with personal values among core consumers. For these consumers sustainability is tangible, real and personal. They articulate its meaning in complex ways, making connections between the earth, their community and their own behavior. Beyond being an aspirational ideal, sustainability has become an integral part of their lifestyle. For example, a core consumer might only shop at a local co-op because the store has a clear commitment to green values. The same consumer might also buy only cruelty-free personal care products to remain consistent with her values.

    Values and behavior

    Studying how consumers talk about topics, such as sustainability, gives us another level of understanding between consumer attitudes and behaviors. By synthesizing consumer interviews, we are able to construct a language map that visually shows how each consumer segment, from periphery to core, expresses themselves with respect to green values and products.

    The map begins at the bottom, where we see periphery consumers use phrases such as a "desire for a healthier body" and "quality of life" to describe their attitudes toward sustainability. The connection between green values and physical health and wellness is largely driven by the association that consumers make between organic foods and sustainability.

    As we move up the map toward the mid-level segment, we see that these consumers have moved beyond the internal benefits of green products and are considering issues such as a "desire for a healthier community" and "locally grown" products.

    In contrast to the lower half of the language map, the core consumers at the top of the map articulate values such as being "eco-responsible" and a "desire for a healthier planet," as well as being conscious about how their actions are part of the "web of life."

    The green consumer market

    While the core consumer segment is the ideal target for green products, the reality is that this group makes up the smallest consumer segment — only 13 percent. The largest segment by far is the mid-level segment, which makes up 62 percent of this consumer world, with the periphery comprising the final 24 percent.

    Green product marketers have a choice between targeting the core segment, which is the most likely to embrace a product that adheres to their stringent values of sustainability, or the mid-level segment, which offers a larger group.

    Targeting the core consumer segment requires that a product and brand meet a high level of authenticity, as these consumers have a keen eye for the real deal. These consumers also have a high regard for grassroots brands that are relevant to their lifestyle.

    If targeting mid-level consumers, however, marketers should keep in mind that factors such as personal benefits, community and knowledge obtained through their social network are of greater importance. Also, mid-level consumers choose green products on one occasion, but a conventional product the next.

    Marketers should weigh the benefits of targeting the larger segment with the group's weaker commitment to green values and its inconsistent purchase behavior.

    That said, as with any other product on the market, when competition arrives on the scene, price and convenience become necessary ingredients to compete for consumers' purchase dollars.

    Laurie Demeritt is president & chief operating officer of The Hartman Group, a consulting and market research firm based in Bellevue.

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