'Green' consumers just as likely to succumb to a good deal
SCOTT DEVEAU Globe and Mail Update
There is no such thing as truly green consumer, because even the most ethically savvy shoppers often trade their ideals for a bargain, according to new research out of the University of Leeds.
While more people are becoming aware of environmentally- friendly, energy-efficient, and organic products, when it comes down it, the majority of consumers apparently would prefer to save some money than try to save the planet, according to the study.
Along with the usual considerations such as price, availability or size, green consumers also weigh in additional factors, such as energy efficiency, water consumption or the working conditions of the employees involved in the manufacturing process, the paper says. Most consumers have a problem resolving conflicting ideas of brand loyalty, green ideals and ethical considerations.
The researchers found that while so-called green shoppers were more likely to apply their ethical standards to purchasing everyday items, like food or clothing, which were well advertised as such, they would compromise those same ideals when it came down to buying more expensive items.
"In the end, what ethical consumers get is often the same products as normal consumers, because they've sort of watered-down their beliefs," said Dr. William Young, professor of environment and business and lead researcher on the study, in an interview from Leeds.
Dr. Young and his colleagues drew their conclusions from a series of interviews, focus groups and workshops to explore the decisions consumers make when buying everything from washing machines to light bulbs.
"With goods like food, consumers find it easier to buy green products because they can experiment, it's cheap, and if they don't like it, they can buy something else next week," Dr. Young said. "Whereas, with some of the bigger items, like fridges and cars, price comes in big time there, because there's more of a risk. It really reduces their environmental values."
The researchers identified three different kinds of green consumers:
* Translators: are green in some aspects of their lives. They are motivated by a sense of trying to "do the right thing" and are open to change and willing to make a certain amount of sacrifice if they see a clear rationale for adjusting their lifestyle.
* Exceptors: have a personal philosophy about consumption, sustainability is a priority in every aspect of their lives. All their consumption choices try to achieve the least environmental impact with the most social justice.
* Selectors: are the most common type of green consumer. They act as green or ethical consumers in one aspect of their lives, like being an avid recyclers, eating only organic food, or supporting fair trade, but are less focused on other issues.
Selectors are able to follow their beliefs more successfully because they are only focused on one ideal, Dr. Young said, adding that these people don't see their own behaviour as contradictory and would have no problem driving to the grocery store to buy organic food.
Even the most conscientious consumer group, the exceptors, still have what Dr. Young refers to as "blind spots."
While they may spend a lot of effort researching almost all of their purchases, they still have certain luxury items - most often electronics like iPods or computer game systems - that they purchase on a whim without any consideration for the environmental or social impact of the purchase.
"They wouldn't have looked at the environmental policies of that company, or if an NGO had rated that company," Dr. Young said. "They see it as a reward for being good most of the time. They'll just go to the shop and buy it."
WASHINGTON - Americans care about the environment, but they don't usually vote that way in elections for president or Congress.
Compared to voters in Europe, where the Green Party is a political force and global climate change is part of the public dialogue, US voters in national elections tend to cast their ballots based on candidates' stances on the Iraq war, the economy and health care -- not on environmental policy.
The next Election Day is Nov. 7.
Only about 3 percent of US voters in recent exit polls said the environment was the most important issue to them in casting their ballots, according to Karlyn Bowman, who tracks public opinion polling for the American Enterprise Institute.
That puts it far behind the hot-button issue of abortion, which between 9 percent and 13 percent of US voters said was most important to them.
This may be because Americans reckon the question about what the country wants in terms of the environment has long ago been settled, Bowman said.
"When we (in the United States) agreed in the late 1960s and early 1970s that we wanted a clean and healthful environment and we wanted to spend a lot of money to get one, once that consensus was reached at the national level, most Americans pulled away from the debate," she said.
While Americans accept the need to support a clean environment, each US resident uses about twice as much energy as the typical German, Japanese or Briton and emits roughly as much carbon, according to the Sierra Club.
With 5 percent of the world's population, the United States uses 25 percent of the world's oil and produces 25 percent of the world's carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.
Much of the American appetite for energy is focused on transportation, where individuals are more likely to drive energy-inefficient vehicles for longer distances than in other developed countries.
ENVIRONMENTAL POLITICS IS LOCAL
Bowman said the environment has lost its potency as a national issue, but still mobilizes Americans in state and local races.
That mobilization is clear as the United States counts down to the Nov. 7 election for Congress and other offices.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who has broken with the Republican Bush administration on environmental issues, has pushed for special state vehicle pollution standards, a bond issue meant to assure safe water and beaches, and for a sharp reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
Nearly 400 Green Party candidates are on US ballots in 2006, and so far Greens have won 24 out of the 62 elections where they had candidates around the country, according to the greens.org Web site. However, those winners are all in local offices, ranging from the Sebastopol, California, city council, to the board of supervisors in Douglas County, Wisconsin.
Most Americans do consider the environment important, according to Michael Bell, an environmental sociologist at the University of Wisconsin. Bell noted polling since 1983 shows a consistent high level of public support for environmental issues.
But he said few politicians make this a highlight of their campaigns, so voters leaving the polling booth are unlikely to list the environment as the reason they cast a ballot for a particular candidate, Bell said.
He also acknowledged that the environmental message is often one of "gloom and doom" -- a strategic mistake, in Bell's view.
"If to be an environmentalist is to put on a hair shirt every day, to force yourself at every second of the day to ask, 'Am I making the environmentally right decision?'.. . it's going to be rather overwhelming to people," Bell said.
The issue resonates with voters but not with business leaders, Bell said, adding, "That maybe is an important factor in understanding why it doesn't seem to resonate with politicians, whose interests often reflect those of business."
Story by Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
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