Shoppers Still Buy Green Despite Recession

Last Updated Feb 18, 2009 10:31 AM EST

Even as they cut back on spending, consumers still care about sustainability, a pair of new studies suggest. In an Opinion Research Corporation survey, 4 out of 5 people said they were still buying green products or services.

Unfortunately for the food companies, customers are also increasingly skeptical. A BrandSpark International survey found that 75 percent believe companies are "exploiting environmental claims for marketing purposes," and in the ORC study, only 1 in 10 "blindly" trusted green claims on product labels.

Furthermore, the cacophony of competing green claims can get as overwhelming as the various nutrition labeling schemes. But there is one thing that the studies found trigger automatic skepticism: packaging.

If a product claims to be environmentally-friendly but it's individually packed in styrofoam that's in turn wrapped in cellophane before being stuffed in an oversized box and then wrapped in plastic a second time, that's going to be a hard sell. In the ORC survey, 60 percent said they look for minimal packaging, and in the BrankSpark study, 78 percent of the 50,000 surveyed said companies had a long way to go in terms of reducing packaging.

Packaging is already on the radar for a lot of companies. McDonald's just changed its packaging to make it, among other things, more sustainable. Kellogg is working on designing a more efficient cereal box. And packaging and water use were both on the list of nine sustainability goals released by Heinz.

Coca-Cola won an environmental award from the World Environment Center because of sustainable packaging and efficient water use -- water being potentially the next big thing as environmentalists start talking about "water footprints" in addition to carbon footprints And Coca-Cola is also funding a project at Michigan State University to look at better forms of packaging.

But companies, like customers, are kind of on their own to figure out what "green" means and what their priorities should be. The LEED program, for example, gives points to buildings built with water-efficient toilets, but it doesn't sufficiently address how efficient industrial processes are themselves.

  • Katherine Glover