The 26%

environmental and social responsibility
Well, I’ve looked everywhere, but I cannot find a pair of articles I read earlier this month that asserted:

  1. That 26% of North Americans consistently spend significantly more for socially and environmentally responsible products, even if that caused them some financial hardship, and
  2. That this percentage was modestly U-shaped against income — lowest for middle-income earners.

In the process of trying to find these articles, I reviewed some two dozen surveys dating back to 1992. They revealed the following information:

  • The percentage who claim to be socially and environmentally conscious in their behaviour has been rising (from about 40% to 60%); the percentage whose actually buy socially and environmentally conscious products has stayed flat (about 4%).
  • Depending on how the question is phrased, the percentage who claim to ‘buy green’ varies from 10% to over 90%.
  • Actual buying behaviour studies suggest that price, quality and convenience still outweigh ‘green’ in the majority of buyers’ decision criteria: “people do noy actually buy the products they claim to prefer”.
  • While a majority claim to be willing to pay more to buy ‘green’, studies suggest that a price difference of more than 5% discourages the vast majority of buyers.
  • A third of people surveyed say they don’t believe social and environmental product claims.
  • Few people surveyed were aware of which companies had reputations as socially and environmentally responsible, or irresponsible.
  • Surveys were wildly inconsistent in assessing which demographic groups were ‘greenest; some said the oldest, others the youngest, some said the richest, others the poorest.
  • Surveys in the 1990s suggest that 18-20% of all people (and more women than men) consistently shop for socially and environmentally responsible products, even if they cost considerably more.

So whether the number is 18% or 26%, it does seem to represent the percentage of people who are willing to put their money where their mouth is, and invest some time and energy to research and seek out green products.

I think it’s an encouraging number, and as information increases, the population ages and the middle class disappears, it’s likely to rise. The popularity of my Boycott List is a sign, I think, that these people really give a damn.

Suppose the number is 26%. Who are the other 74% that we still need to inform or convert? My guess, judging from the cross-section of people I know, is that they fall into five groups:

  • The problem deniers: Those who think there is no need to be socially or environmentally conscious, because if there’s a problem ‘the market’ will take care of it. (My guess: 20%)
  • The uninformed: Those who have no idea what’s going on in the world, or that there is any reason to be socially or environmentally conscious. (My guess: 14%)
  • The disengaged: Those who are too busy to think about social and environmental issues (including those who never shop, and get others to shop for them, with specific instructions). (My guess: 10%)
  • The cynics: Those who think all the consciousness claims are a con, and that it doesn’t matter what you buy. (My guess: 10% and rising)
  • The well-intentioned: Those who think it’s important to be green, but get sucked in or distracted or pressured by other priorities (“No Mom, we have to buy this brand”) so their actions don’t match their values. (My guess: 20%)

Each of these five groups requires a different approach:

  • The problem deniers: Ignore them: you’ll just waste time trying to persuade them. Wait until they’re ready to listen.
  • The uninformed: Tell them, gently, a better solution. No lectures, no horror stories. Don’t harp on what’s wrong with what they’re buying, tell them what’s right about the green alternative. High road.
  • The disengaged: Get to the people who do the shopping for them. Fortunately, those people are probably women.
  • The cynics: Cynics are often romantics and idealists at heart. Tell them a story about a company that’s doing something positive that makes a difference. You can argue about data, but you can’t argue about a good story.
  • The well-intentioned: Make it easier for them. Help green companies get shelf space, add value (recipes with food products) and convenience. Show this group by example that there’s no hardship in buying green.

If we could win over the second, third and fifth groups and half the cynics, we’d have three quarters of the buyers buying green. The suppliers would have no choice but to listen and adapt.

Of course, we’d still have to do battle with the greenwashers. But in an age of increasing information and connectivity,propaganda is an expensive and risky way to keep customers.

We have the power. It’s time to use it. 26% is an army large enough to change the world.

Category: What You Can Do
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1 Response to The 26%

  1. chosha says:

    Agreed. I think there are a lot of people out there who would buy more responsibly if they were better-informed, or if they didn’t feel like their little part won’t make a difference. 26% is significant. Actually, though, rather than trying to convince anyone that ‘we can change the world’ I usually just explain that I would do what I do even if I knew for sure that it made no difference to the world, because when I make my actions consistent with what I believe is right, it makes a difference to ME. This has sometimes sparked a conversation about making change for good generally and how to go about that in your personal life and it’s often a very positive conversation.

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