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They're Not Buying It -- Because They're Not Buying It

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It is a familiar lament of companies wishing to find a market for environmentally and socially responsible (such as fair trade) goods -- the majority of consumers simply will not pay a premium for these items.

However there is a huge market out there among for these goods (and services) if companies can find a way to reach the between 60 and 70 percent of consumers who say that they are searching for "greener" products, according to the latest research from the Shelton Group.

I first met Suzanne Shelton several years ago at a conference where she presented 'What Do Consumers Think About this Whole Green Thing?" a straight-talking, pull no punches analysis based on her company's quarterly polling of Americans. And the results of that, and subsequent interactions, have helped me define messages for myself, as well as several organizations, including the Sustainable Business Network of Washington. I recently caught up with her again at the Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego, and I wanted to tap her expertise about what had changed, and what had stayed the same, in the last few years.

For example, their research shows that over the last four years, the percentage of the population that is searching for "greener" products has plateaued - but at 60 to 70 percent, that is "the broad side of the barn, as a marketer, I can hit that!" At the same time, the highest percentage of sales -- sustainable food -- is at 30 percent, meaning the gap between desire and purchase has yet to be filled..

So what are they looking for? According to Shelton, the price premium remains a barrier. However, environmental sustainability offers a market advantage to comparably priced goods. Consumers are buying "greener" consumables - items that offer multiple opportunities to make that buying decision (over and over), particularly in the low-risk category; so that items that offer less 'risk' are making it off the shelf and into shopping carts. So, people are willing to try 'green' cleaning products that cost approximately 30 cents more rather than jumping in and spending $30,000 on a new solar electricity system. And consumers will continue to buy the product that gave them a favorable experience.

A trend that Suzanne describes as "really compelling" is that consumer attitudes have shifted from looking at 'green' products to 'green' companies. 5 years ago the environmental reputation of the company was the eighth most important factor in green product decision making. Today it is second. So companies that wish to pay successfully in this space need to move beyond offering one or two 'green' products and start "baking it into your entire corporate story. You have to buy in, green up, your entire operation." Therefore, companies have to commit fully to 'green' and not just offer it as a secondary or niche product.

In other words, the lesson for all businesses is, it is not enough to have one or two 'green' (or 'greener') offerings in your portfolio; if they don't buy your overall 'green' credentials, they won't buy your 'green' products.