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Environment taking back seat to pocketbook issues: survey

Visitors look at an exhibit at the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen in 2009.

Miguel Villagran/Getty Images

Companies can now take a break from making noise about their environmental efforts to woo consumers, a study has found.

"The majority of Canadians think it is too expensive to make choices that will benefit the environment in the face of personal pocketbook pressures," said Jack Bensimon, president of Bensimon Byrne, the Toronto-based advertising agency that put out the Consumerology Report..

Fewer Canadians are willing to pay a premium "for doing the right thing," with the environment losing its status as one of the top five issues Canadians care for, according to the report.

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The momentum environmental issues enjoyed three years ago has experienced a sharp decline, as the age of thrift is upon us. "Canadians are more cost sensitive now. Lower prices matter much more than they used to," explained David Herle, principal partner with Gandalf Group, which conducted the study.

This is a stark change from three years ago, when a similar study was conducted. At the time, auto retailers were instructed to appeal to fuel economy and dish detergent manufacturers were encouraged to market environmentally friendly products. "The willingness to pay more for better environmental outcomes has badly diminished," Mr. Bensimon said.

Concerns over the environment and climate change have slipped to the bottom of the chart, dropping 11 per cent and 7 per cent, respectively, since last year. "These are precipitous changes," Mr. Herle said. Previously topping the charts, environmental issues have been replaced by worries over the state of health care and the price of gasoline. Pocketbook concerns such as economy, unemployment and adequate pensions made gains in their place.

"Are consumers willing to pay more? The answer is overwhelmingly no," Mr. Herle said.

The study also found a gap in how Canadians feel about the state of our economy (stronger) with how they feel about their own personal prospects (worse). Similarly, there is a difference in how Canadians feel about the environment as citizens (concerned), compared to how they feel as consumers (cash strapped).

What does this mean for companies? "They are better off focusing on waste, garbage and packaging than crafting a message around renewable energy and climate change. It's all about getting the best bang for your buck," Mr. Herle explained.

Indeed, politicians have long striven to contextualize environmental issues as a health concern, with more than 65 per cent of Canadians saying they care about smog, compared to only 49 per cent who care about climate change, though the two are linked.

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The survey also found that more than 70 per cent of Canadians consider corporate environmental efforts as green washing. This means that green campaigns may be doing companies more harm than good. Ninety-five per cent of Canadians would like to see government standards imposed on companies to weed out dubious claims. "There is much cynicism about green marketing. Consumers perceive it as companies taking advantage of good will," Mr. Herle said.

"The real missed opportunity," explained Mr. Bensimon, looking back to the first survey three years ago, is that no company has proffered environmental products that are priced the same as conventional products. "That's the sweet spot the market missed," he said. He believes that had companies seen the rise in green interest not as a get-rich-quick scheme, but a chance to cultivate sophisticated consumers, the committed buyer base could have easily mitigated the impact of the recent recession.

Further, what was previously perceived as a generation gap in the green debate – a vision of rallying youth pitted against complacent adults – turns out to be a gender one.

"An old woman is more likely to be green than a young man," said Mr. Herle.

Women are twice as likely as men to pay more for an environmentally responsible product. Fifty-eight per cent of women are considered to be strong environmental consumers, whereas 58 per cent of men "won't buy green even if it doesn't cost more."

It doesn't mean companies should halt all their green campaigns, however. The silver lining is that four out of 10 Canadians remain steadfastly committed to the environment. "It's the middle that's fallen out," Mr. Herle said. The 32 per cent of Canadians who identified themselves as caring "somewhat" for the environment three years ago fell to 23 per cent, all of them migrating to the "least concerned" category. This polarizes the field into strong environmental consumers, and the wholly unconvinced.

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"The study underscores the fact that we still treat the environment as something separate from issues such as economy or gas prices when really, if you look at the top five issues that people care about, four are directly linked to the environment," said Cherise Burda, Ontario policy director at Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank.

"If you address those issues in a comprehensive way, you are actually addressing environmental issues. People care about smog, people care about air quality. But environment is all of those things. They go hand in hand."

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