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Greenwashing Skepticism Down, but so Are Consumer Concerns

GfK Survey Finds Economic Priorities Trump Environment

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People care less about the environment or green marketing claims than they did a few years ago, yet they're also less likely to doubt marketers' green claims or motives, according to the new Green Gauge Report from GfK.

The 2011 version of the study, based on surveys of more than 2,000 respondents between June 9 and July 5, found only 33% said the environment is "very serious and should be a priority for everyone" this year, down from 39% last year and 46% in 2007. At the same time, 41% of people agreed with the statement "first comes economic security, then we can worry about environmental problems," up 13 points from 2007, according to GfK.

That attitude filters down to reported purchase behavior. Only 24% of respondents this year said they avoid products that aren't environmentally responsible, down 6 percentage points from 2008. Only 30% of people this year said they'd bought a "green" or environmentally responsible version of a product in the past two months, down from a high of 36 % in 2008.

Yet there was a trend toward "simple and practical steps," as GfK puts it, including 63% who say they now use tap water instead of bottled water (up 5 points from 2008) and 39% who say they use reusable shopping bags, up 11 points over the same period.

Despite people being less responsive to environmental ad claims, they seem to believe them more often. The Green Gauge report found 39% of people say business claims about the environment aren't accurate, substantially lower than the 48% who believed that three years ago. And 37% of respondents this year said business and industry are fulfilling their responsibility to the environment, up 8 points from 2007.

Despite slippage in support for the environment in recent years, however, people are still more supportive than they were in 2002 or 1990, said Timothy Kenyon, director of the Green Gauge study for GfK.

GfK compared this year's responses to a 1990 study commissioned by SC Johnson by Roper, now part of GfK. That 1990 study was the inspiration for the Green Gauge tracking study.

"There has been a progression in the perceptions and actions of the American consumer with regard to the environment since our first study," said Kelly Semrau, senior VP-SC Johnson Global Corporate Affairs, Communications and Sustainability, in a statement. SCJ is expected to release further details next week.

And despite some slippage, consumer environmental sentiment remains higher than in 2002 as well. For example, while down 6 points from 2008, the percentage of people who said they've bought a green product in the past two months in 2011 is still 4 points higher than it was in 2002, Mr. Kenyon said.

"Conservation," or messages that combine economic frugality with environmental responsibility, are most likely to resonate with the current consumer mindset, Mr. Kenyon said. And declining skepticism about corporate motives and environmental claims make it a good time to talk about corporate environmental responsibility, he said.

"There's a thawing in attitudes toward greenwashing," he said. "There's also a realization from consumers, given the economy, that [companies] can only do so much."

People also increasingly get their environmental information from marketers, Mr. Kenyon said. Word of mouth was the top source of information about environmental issues this year, followed by product packaging, online articles, TV programs and newspaper articles.

Word of mouth, which 34% of people said was a major source of environmental information, was up 7 points from 2002. Product packaging and labels, at 33%, were up 11 points from 2002. Online articles, at 32%, were up 9 points; while TV shows, at 31%, were down 31 points; and newspaper articles, at 30%, were down 27 points.

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