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Sustainability

Is the environmental movement dying? Add to ...

When Melissa Gunning’s nine-year-old daughter, Rayne, can’t find a recycling bin at the park, she dutifully throws her empty juice bottles into her backpack. Eventually she chucks them into the blue bin at home.

She seems to have learned a lot from her mother, who is president of Wean Green, a small Calgary company with a line of glass containers for storing food for children and babies. Not only does the company donate one per cent of its profit to charities that protect Canadian wildlife, but it does its part to save paper, too. Think no printed invoices or packing slips. And the company uses recycled corrugated cardboard rather than plastic packaging.

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Still, while saving the planet might be high on her list of priorities, Ms. Gunning admits that’s not always what motivates her clients, with health concerns topping their list.

Who cares about the environment these days?

According to a new report issued by Bensimon Byrne, a Toronto-based advertising agency, Canadians are tiring of being green. In fact, in just three short years, the environment has lost its status as one of the top five issues facing Canadians and now ranks behind the price of gas, adequate pensions, ethics in politics and the state of the economy. Other than gas prices, which have levelled out in recent years, no other issue has dropped off the radar in the same way.

The struggling economy is partly to blame, says Jack Bensimon, the company’s president.

“Household debt is at record levels and people are really stretched. Making brand choices and purchase decisions on the basis of what’s good for the planet is becoming a luxury for most people,” he says.

Women in particular have become more jaded by what they see as the “green-washing” of their purchases, as well as the higher sticker price. In 2008, 46 per cent of women said they were very concerned about the environment. Today, only 32 per cent say the same.

Suzanne Shelton, president and chief executive officer of the Shelton Group, an advertising agency in Knoxville, Tenn., that focuses on sustainability, says confusion has led to a sense of green fatigue and cynicism.

“When the whole green thing got hot a few years ago, how many ads said, ‘Be Green!’ Well, what the hell is that? No one was being specific,” she says.

Or, as Neil Chambers, author of Urban Green: Architecture for the Future, puts it, “This new water bottle that filters my water – how exactly is it going to bring back bald eagles? What’s the connection? People are starting to say, ‘This is a bunch of crap.’”

Professor Jatin Nathwani, executive director for the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy at the University of Waterloo, says he has seen dips in public concern in previous decades. The trick to maintaining interest is to develop a balanced perspective in Canada.

“There is a clear lesson emerging from these polls. Deliberate exaggeration of environmental issues, simply torqued to gain either public attention or that of policy makers, will not be sustainable in the long run,” he says. “Turning down the rhetoric on the environment is one approach.”

But forget the big picture. For day-to-day living, money is what really talks, says Ms. Shelton. Paying more for an organic, all-natural, ozone-friendly, zero-carbon, reusable, biodegradable pen just doesn’t make a lot of sense to people who are clipping coupons to get through an economic slump.

This price problem, at least according to marketers’ and retailers’ perspectives, can be traced back to the beginning of the push for green products a few years ago, says Mr. Bensimon. Rather than pricing, say, recycled toilet paper to match the more conventional product, eco-friendly T.P. costs extra.

For mainstream consumers, the higher price has resulted in the internalization of a damaging message: Green isn’t for the masses.

“Consumers have been sold this idea that doing the right thing is a luxury – and this is not a time when people can afford luxuries,” says Mr. Bensimon.

Which is exactly why Mark Etcovitch, president of LED Source Eastern Canada, an LED lighting franchise in Montreal, chooses to gloss over the green benefits of his products when making a sales pitch. Instead, he talks money.

“Green is a residual benefit of going to LED technology. I focus on the cost savings,” he says.

It’s a smart move, maintains Ms. Shelton, who conducts regular focus groups about the environment. She says she has found that today’s consumers are less concerned about saving the planet and more concerned about helping themselves. Moms want to protect their kids from toxic cleaning supplies. Managers want to save money on office paper supplies.

“It ain’t about the environment,” she says. “When you start drilling down, it’s about personal health, well being, peace of mind and a sense of control. Frankly, it’s about, ‘What’s in it for me?’”

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