Green Economy: Consumers Still Hesitate

Green Economy: Consumers Still Hesitate

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This year, Earth Day fell on Good Friday, a day many people take off from work to travel and spend time with their families as part of Easter. Although Good Friday is not a national holiday, many offices close altogether. People hit the roads; office water coolers are silent. On Earth Day 2011, though, inconvenient timing may have hindered discussions of the inconvenient truth.

While the debate goes on regarding the long-term effects of carbon emissions, most people are already aware of, and would agree on, some of the basic Earth Day messages taught since elementary school: reduce, reuse, and recycle. It can be impractical or even unsafe, however, to incorporate these basic tenets into everyday life. Here’s why:

Green Can Be Expensive
To keep costs down, companies often use raw materials and manufacturing processes in ways that are unsustainable and perhaps even harmful to the environment. In response to consumer demands to be more environmentally friendly, companies have spent more to offer green alternatives. However, as the consumer’s ability to spend deteriorated in recent years, demand fell for green products, even for those with only marginally higher prices.

It’s very easy for consumers to revert back to conventional products, especially when those products are sitting just a few shelves away.

Green Can Pose Health Risks
Oregon recently passed a bill that could make it the first state to completely ban single-use plastic grocery bags. This legislation is intended to encourage consumers to adopt reusable bags. But studies have raised questions about the safety of using these bags.  One study revealed that some reusable bags contained potentially unsafe amounts of lead. Studies conducted in Canada and Denver revealed that reusable bags often contained significant amounts of bacteria, mold, and fecal matter, which raise the risks of ailments such as food poisoning and asthma attacks. (The solution: Wash the bags after each use.)

While reusing a product requires little effort, consumers have reason to be skeptical of the quality and cleanliness of a used product relative to a similar product that is new.

Green Can Be Unpleasant
In 2009, Frito-Lay North America, a division of PepsiCo, unveiled a biodegradable bag for its SunChips line of multigrain chips. Consumers immediately noticed something different about the new bag, however, when they tried to open it:  It was noisy. The unique molecular structure that made the bags biodegradable was making them noticeably louder. According to one crude test, the decibel level of a bag of SunChips was 23 percent higher than that of a bag of Tostitos.

The noisy packaging had a strong enough influence on consumer behavior that Frito-Lay, after less than two years,  pulled the product. The lesson was loud and clear: Packaging matters.

There’s Still Hope for Green
Frito-Lay did not abandon the biodegradable bag altogether. In fact, two months ago, Frito-Lay re-released the bag at a lower decibel level. While the consumer’s reception to the product is yet to be heard, the important point here is that in response to consumer feedback, the company responded by innovating and improving the product, a concept that is universal to business regardless of whether a business is green-friendly or not.

Ideology alone is not enough to convince consumers to change behavior. In order to sell, alternative products must be similar or better in price, quality, and overall appeal.

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