As most 29th anniversaries go, Earth Day 1999 is slipping by relatively unnoticed. But don't think you'll be so lucky next year -Earth Day turns the big 3-0 in 2000, right in the thick of the presidential primary season. Al Gore may be keeping quiet about the Kyoto Protocol now as he hones another campaign message, but you can bet he'll be on the stump -figuratively, of course-about the health of the planet this time next year.
If the economy is still prospering, Americans will be listening. Close to nine out of ten (87 percent) of adults say they are "concerned" about the condition of the environment in the United States, and almost half (44 percent) say they are "very concerned," according to a twice-a-year tracking poll conducted by Environmental Research Associates (ERA), a division of Integrated Marketing Services in Princeton, New Jersey. In the same poll, air pollution was named by 34 percent of the respondents as the most serious environmental issue facing the U.S., compared to water pollution, a distant second, named by only 12 percent.
"People know a lot more about the environment today. They're much smarter about the issues," says Lois Kaufman, president of IMS and cofounder of ERA. "Air and water pollution are the top issues now. They know recycling and packaging are under control. Now they're concerned about food safety and other issues."
But we're a fickle lot, and we're just as concerned about another type of green-the kind that goes in a wallet. Americans' attitudes-mainly those of seniors, boomers, and Gen Xers-have swung back and forth on environmental topics since Roper Starch Worldwide began tracking such concerns in the 1970s, and ERA in the 1980s. The height of concern occurred, not coincidentally, during the last economic boom in the late 1980s. The recession of 1991-92 dampened our earth-first zeal, and only in the last two years have Roper and ERA seen an upsurge-to late-'80s levels-of concern for all things environmental.
Change is coming, though: The first generation of Earth Day children-the ones who learned about ecology beginning in pre-kindergarten-are beginning to graduate from high school and are taking their environmental values into the workplace and the marketplace.
Born between 1979 and 1994, these Generation Y kids are 60 million strong, and have definitely learned their lessons well. ERA's study, "The Power of Children," hows that children of all ages are significantly more concerned about the environment than their parents are-almost half have asked their parents to do something to help the environment (such as recycling), and their parents did.
Still, Kaufman notes, there's already a dedicated e-consumer group out there: One in two Americans switches product brands based on environment-friendliness, according to an ERA poll released last November. The list includes household cleansers, food and beverages, health and beauty aids, paper goods, cars, gasoline, batteries, computer products, pesticides, and cigarettes.
"Almost 50 percent of consumers look for environmental labeling on products, which is amazing to me," says Kaufman. "Even though the media haven't reported on environmental issues they way they once did, people are changing their living patterns and brand loyalties based on things like a company's reputation for helping or harming the environment."
Despite those findings, Roper's "1998 Green Gauge Report" found that consumers at both ends of the environmental spectrum-the activists and the unconcerned-say they are not willing to pay a premium for greener goods. (See "Growing the Green Market," August 1997.) Activists who have changed their own lifestyles to incorporate more earth-friendly products and practices don't think they should be charged extra to do so, and people who have little concern for the environment don't see the value in paying more for products.
What they are willing to do, it seems, is change their lifestyles and buying patterns.
Alternative fueled vehicles are slowly gaining ground, according to the Energy Information Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Energy. This year, the EIA estimates, there will be 418,000 alternative-fuel cars in the U.S., up 7.5 percent over 1992. Cars, trucks, and sport utility vehicles account for one-third of all carbon dioxide emissions, according to the Public Interest Research Group, and a Gore presidential campaign isn't going to ignore that statistic. President Clinton's Budget 2000 proposes to spend more than $4 billion on global-warming issues. The largest share of that-$3.6 billion-will go toward the Climate Change Technology Initiative, in the form of tax incentives over five years for the purchase of "energy-efficient homes, cars, and appliances." Though the federal government imposes no limits on the amount of CO2 vehicles and power plants can emit, California's strict emissions laws have made alternative-fuel cars (not just city buses) a reality-if not a mainstream one.
Honda is the leading maker of alternative-fuel cars. Its low-emission vehicle models of the Accord and Civic each produce 70 percent lower emissions of nonmethane organic gases and-of course-conform to California's standards. The Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle Accord is available in Washington, D.C., California, and 13 states nationwide. The Honda Civic GX runs on compressed natural gas. A tank will take you 270 miles and offer a combined city/highway fuel economy of 28/34 mpg. Honda's electric car, the EV Plus, comes with dual airbags, power windows and doors, and auto climate control, as well as advanced nickel-metal hydride batteries that run for about 100 city miles on a single charge.
Who's the market for these cars? Young, affluent, single adults who live in cities, as well as self-described environmentalists and those who live in coastal regions, are more likely than average to show interest in buying an electric car, according to ERA. But public awareness for alternative fuel cars remains low, with 74 percent of adults reporting they haven't heard of such a thing.
Historically, women are more concerned about environmental issues, both Roper and ERA have found, but men are more aware of the choices for alternative fuel cars. To raise sales, the advice is to target young mothers. "Women are playing a greater role in car purchase behavior," says IMS president Kaufman. "Car marketers should target women, because they're most concerned with issues like environmental health and safety. You'd have a great campaign."