Buying and Selling Green

May 16, 2008

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An image from a commercial for energy efficient lightbulbs. (AP Photo/George Riley)

It seems like every week there's a new product on the market that's supposed to save the planet. Items with labels like biodegradable, fair trade certified, environmentally friendly, the list goes on and on. Just how much is green and how much is about companies jumping on the bandwagon to make more green? And how are consumers making sense of all that marketing? As part of Chicago Matters Growing Forward, Alexandra Salomon brings us this report.

Green. All natural. Good for the environment. It's everywhere. Even big name mega stores like Wal Mart are selling and advertising green products. Turn on the TV to watch your favorite show and you're sure to hear commercials like this one:

ambi: Wal-Mart commercial

But are people buying those light bulbs? Are consumers really changing their habits? According to a recent national survey, the answer is yes.

The Conscious Consumer Report looked at how people's purchases are shaped by their values. The study found that one quarter of all adults say it's very important to them to buy products from a company that does good things for people and the planet. That's certainly the case with consumers like Ann Brown.

ambi: Whole Foods market,  you said to get spinach…Go find a red onion 

She's at the Whole Foods market in Chicago's Gold Coast neighborhood, shopping with her nine year old son Ethan.

BROWN: Usually we bring our bags to save the environment but I forgot them this morning.

She's got her list in hand, with the week's meals written out as she moves through the produce section, determined and organized.

Brown makes the trip once a week from Hammond, Indiana, because she says she can't get the products she's looking for, especially organic foods, anywhere near her own home. During the last couple of years her family started to slowly make changes in the way they eat and live. That includes eating out less and carefully choosing what she buys.

BROWN: Their regular box of oatmeal costs $5 when we get the equivalent here in the bulk bins, it costs about $3 and you cut down on the packaging as well and now what we do is we donate all the bulk bins, the  plastic containers to one of our schools. The science department uses them and then we reuse.

MAN AT COUNTER: Who's next? Anybody need help? Step right up

BROWN: Could I get two pounds of the frozen? Of the turkey drumstick?

As Brown decides which meats to buy, she's got to wade through advertising claims and sort through numerous labels. She's left to figure it out on her own. The Federal Trade Commission is currently reviewing its guidelines for marketing environmental claims, but they were last revised in 1998 and nothing new has been put in place.

BROWN: I did some reading. The Whole Foods stuff, even if it's not organic or kosher, my husband asked the guys behind the counter up north and they were saying that it's grown differently. I don't understand it all. It's just this is where I get all my meat from.
SALOMON: You trust the people that work here and you're relying on what they say and then what you read and that's kind of how you keep on top of what you're buying?
BROWN: It's pretty much more just educating yourself and Whole Foods just seems to be very healthy. Just the standing behind their products, it makes me feel comfortable.

Brown is willing to make sacrifices in other areas in order to pay higher prices for her groceries.

KLOTZ: It's really a perspective. If you think about it and this is something that we truly believe at Whole Foods Market, is you're looking at health food bills later in life, you're looking at how the environment is shaping up. You're paying costs in different ways. Its' a fluctuation in where your money is going and it's definitely a shift in how people perceive their food dollars.

That's Kate Klotz, a company spokeswoman. 

Klotz believes as more companies enter the green marketplace, consumers will benefit. The supply of products will increase and that will help bring prices down.  Still, Klotz says that for now, consumers are willing to pay for quality.

But Peter Nicholson wouldn't agree.

He's the founder of Chicago's Sustainable Business Alliance, a program that helps businesses become more sustainable and socially responsible.

NICHOLSON: The green movement has really come through the luxury market movement which is kind of ironic in certain ways because who needs greater efficiencies, who needs healthier products but low income folks who are living near environmental impact zones lets call them. These are the folks who need the high efficiency houses. Who need this sort of stuff and most case the products, they're not going to o out and buy a Prius.

Nicholson says that green products and practices simply need to become a part of our culture and way of life, not just specialty high end items. That's how they'll become more accessible to more Americans.

The Conscious Consumer Report found that affordability is key to getting more Americans to buy eco-friendly products.

Raphael Bemporad of the marketing firm BBMG, conducted the survey.

BEMPORAD: The kind of headline from our research as it relates to marketing and for organizations and brands is not to expect mainstream America to become green all of a sudden but to make green more mainstream.

And Bemporad says that until that happens, companies are missing out. At least 40 percent of Americans aren't willing to pay the going rate for green.