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The drive to go green - saving the environment or money?

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Canadians are increasingly choosing eco-conscious lifestyles, but is it because we want to save the environment, or money on our heating bills?

Nearly two-thirds of Canadian households lower the thermostat in winter before going to bed. Yet, less than half of us always bring reusable or recycled bags to the grocery store. We are increasingly opting for energy-efficient - and money-saving - appliances. But only a fraction regularly purchase green cleaning products, which are often more expensive than traditional cleaners.

It seems like contradictory behaviour. But look at these stats another way and they make perfect sense. Canadian consumers, while wanting to help the environment, are also highly motivated by another kind of green: money.

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A new report from Statistics Canada, published last week, reveals the majority of Canadians have adopted environmentally friendly behaviours, a dramatic shift from two decades ago.For instance, the new Statistics Canada report found that nearly two-thirds of Canadian households were using low-flow shower heads in 2009, compared to just 28 per cent in 1991. Similarly, 42 per cent of households were using low-volume toilets in 2009, compared to 9 per cent in 1991.

The report also offers evidence that energy considerations are playing a major role in the decision to purchase big-ticket items in Canada. For example, 54 per cent of households reported they'd bought a major appliance in the past five years. Of those, nearly two-thirds said water or energy consumption was the biggest factor in their purchasing decision, followed by price consideration (at 55 per cent). This demonstrates the extent to which consumers are adopting eco initiatives.

But at the same time, just under half of households always brought recycled or reusable bags to the grocery store in 2009, compared to 30 per cent in 2007, suggesting many consumers still rely on plastic bags.

In addition, only 10 per cent of Canadians reported buying green cleaning products all the time in 2009, while 17 per cent said they rarely purchased them, and another 17 per cent said they never did.

The trends suggest what green marketing experts have been saying for years: While consumers want to do their part for the environment, they are much more likely to adopt eco-friendly habits if it comes with a monetary incentive, as well as other benefits, such as limiting exposure to chemicals in the home. Similarly, many consumers may be deterred from investing in green changes if it means they have to spend more money without getting any clear benefit.

"It's just kind of a human nature thing that it is really hard to write a cheque today for something that's going to benefit people generations from now," said Suzanne Shelton, president and CEO of the Shelton Group, a Tennessee-based advertising agency that does extensive polling on consumer attitudes toward green products.

Ms. Shelton said financial and other motivating incentives have become so important in recent years that they are now crucial to the survival of the green movement.

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"You won't sell any products without it in this day and age," she said. "The vast majority of mainstream [consumers]are not buying green products because they want to save the planet. They're buying green products for a host of other reasons."

That idea is supported by the fact many market research firms found consumers were more reluctant to shell out extra money for green products during the recession. Although many polls found consumers were still interested in the environment and were looking for environmental products, many also said it was much more difficult to justify spending more on those products, which suggests that, at least for some, financial concerns trump green convictions.

Fiona O'Donnell, senior analyst at Mintel, a global market research firm, said it makes sense that more consumers are buying energy-efficient appliances because the financial incentives involved, such as saving money on energy bills or qualifying for government rebates, have been well-publicized.

"I think that consumers are still … price sensitive, they don't want to lose money on going green, but they're a little bit less sensitive on the up-front cost of going green as long as they can recoup their cost in the long run," Ms. O'Donnell said.

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