Going green is turning into a growth industry. Both consumers and suppliers are talking about it. Expectations are changing. Being kinder and gentler to our planet has become part of who, and what, many of us want to be. Buying green products or using green packages helps to satisfy the “virtue quota,” the amount of goodness people need to contribute to the world to feel like good people.

The public may be looking to business to fight global warming because they see government as doing so little. The green-package opportunities for promoting good citizenship are mind boggling.

Fears of climate change and being seen as concerned and cool are the twin drivers of green shopping. A poll by the Canadian-based GlobeScan, which specializes in corporate social responsibility, reports that 65% of Americans believe that climate change will directly threaten them and their families. A British-based Web site, www.worldpublicopinion.org, reports that people around the world, in developing and in developed countries, are willing to pay higher prices to address climate change.

Our year-end survey of what American consumers actually hope to do this year shows that their hopes depend on their education and incomes-those who are well-off and well-educated plan to do more green shopping and use greener packages than those who aren’t (see Chart 1: Eco-friendly hopes and education). 

Hopes to buy more eco-friendly products in more eco-friendly packages go straight up with income (see Chart 2: Eco-friendly hopes and income).

Before you decide that the 20% response to green packages is hardly a majority and isn’t even as compelling as the 25% response to green products, or that 20% “hope” probably doesn’t translate into all that many sales, consider this: 10% of a big sample is routinely considered “salient,” and concerns and issues that are salient stand out conspicuously and have the power to drive purchases.

So, given the fact that 22% of the 1,000+ females who responded to our survey indicated that they hope to buy more green packages this year, suppliers who aren’t paying attention should think twice about the sales they may be losing.

Recognizing 'green'

How are the shoppers who are hoping for “green” packages going to recognize them? Right now, when they shift their focus from consumer-friendly to eco-friendly, they are considering any one or more of 10 indicators:
  1. Recyclable or made with recycled materials
  2. Simple (not over-packaged)
  3. On-pack recycling number that works where they live
  4. Reusable
  5. Refillable
  6. Made of renewable materials such as polylactic acid (PLA)
  7. Less materials/unboxed/single layer
  8. Less or no plastic
  9. On-pack “eco-friendly” symbol or seal of approval
  10. Bulk (not packaged at all)
With a few exceptions, such as eggs in recycled paperboard and citrus in mesh bags, there still isn’t much packaging that shouts “Look, I’m eco-friendly.”

As this goes to press, Whole Foods has changed its salad bar packages from plastic to recycled paperboard-its meat trays will soon follow suit. Tesco, the British food retailer that has begun to enter the U.S. market with Fresh & Easy stores, has announced plans to label its store brand products with symbols indicating just how eco-friendly they are. One of the symbols it hopes to use is an airplane on packages that have been shipped long distances.

Many shoppers are hearing and reading that long-distance travel uses too much fuel to get products to the store and, even without an airplane symbol, some consumers have made the connection to the packages used to protect the product. “Packages that have to travel a long way have to have sturdier and costlier packages, so global distribution has to raise the carbon footprint on packages as well as products.”

If airplane icons actually appear on Tesco packages, other major packagers might consider the kind of “offset options” airlines are offering their fliers. Continental Airlines customers can view a carbon footprint of their flight, and make an offsetting contribution to reforestation or renewable energy projects.

Buyers of packaged products might be more comfortable using convenience packaging if they knew it was being offset by such contributions. Imagine a “Packaging Offset Fund” symbol that tells buyers that a penny or some part or multiple goes to a sustainable energy POF. Without credible offsets and symbols, convenience packages will have trouble justifying their existence and may start disappearing the way the little plastic shampoo and lotion amenity bottles are disappearing from “green” hotel rooms.

Drilling down

This year, males and females are roughly equal in their hopes to do more eco-friendly consuming in 2008 (see Chart 3: Eco-friendly hopes and gender).

In previous years, women and children seemed more environmentally engaged than men. This year, more men seem to believe that being green will make a difference.

Today, with basic food prices higher than they’ve been in years, eco-friendly products and packages are perceived as costing too much more than traditional products and packages to be practical for many households with children.

Our poll suggests that more shoppers without kids will be shopping for “green” products, but that households with teenagers will be looking for green packages (see Chart 4: Eco-friendly hopes and ages of children). Just in time to explain that strange finding, one mother of teens told us that her “boys have very strong opinions about which plastics I should and shouldn’t bring home.” I can’t help but wonder if her boys and others use the same guidelines when they’re spending for themselves.