Consumers Will Buy Green Products … But Only If They’re Cheap and Help Save Money

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So maybe it’s that consumers will buy products that help them save money—and if they also happen to be environmentally friendly, that’s a bonus.

On Earth Day, it’s time to reflect on an emerging truth: Especially during economically troubled times, consumers aren’t particularly willing to pay extra for products strictly because they’re better for the environment.

The NY Times reports that sales of many green products, including eco-friendly cleaning products, have plummeted hand-in-hand with the tanking of the economy over the past few years. Quite clearly, then, there are limits as to how far a consumer will go—or rather, how much extra a consumer will pay—to minimize one’s impact on Mother Nature. A quote from a Times source sums up the typical consumer’s hypocrisy in the matter:

“Every consumer says, ‘I want to help the environment, I’m looking for eco-friendly products,'” said David Donnan, a partner in the consumer products practice at the consulting firm A. T. Kearney. “But if it’s one or two pennies higher in price, they’re not going to buy it. There is a discrepancy between what people say and what they do.”

A huge portion of consumers fall into the category of skeptics who will do good by the environment only if it’s in their financial interest.

Price isn’t the only reason consumers can turn away from eco-friendly products. Last fall, you may recall, Frito-Lay pulled the plug on biodegradable SunChips bags, and why? Consumers complained they were too loud. So no matter how much good a product does for the environment, if it costs a little extra, or if it’s a little annoying, sorry Mother Nature: We’re not buying.

We’re also not buying cars with better gas mileage, at least not in numbers strong enough to justify a broad shift by manufacturers to more fuel-efficient vehicles. The automotive industry, per a WSJ story, points out one surefire way to prod drivers into buying more fuel-efficient cars: Make gas more expensive.

So are auto manufacturers actually arguing to increase the price of gas in the U.S.? No, not exactly. But if gas prices don’t rise substantially, car makers foresee a future in which government regulations force them to build cars that are more fuel-efficient and more expensive—and that consumers don’t necessarily want to pay for. From the WSJ:

Auto makers say that if gas prices don’t keep rising, they could be forced to spend billions on more efficient cars that consumers won’t buy. One survey, by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Ltd., showed that U.S. fuel prices would have to rise to $5 a gallon to reach an “inflection point,” with 78% of respondents saying they would consider buying an electric vehicle at that point.

Again, many consumers say, “I want to help the environment, I’m looking for eco-friendly products.” Buy how many say, “I want to pay $5 a gallon”?