This past week I attempted to put myself in the shoes of an average, mainstream consumer and search for green products at a grocery store just as they do – without knowing much about what makes a product green, which brands are greener than others or even how to find a greener product at shelf. It wasn’t hard to put myself in their place. Standing there staring at the plethora of choices, it was easy to be overwhelmed by the barrage of starbursts, snipes, swipes and call-outs. (Keep in mind that I am the kind of guy who can stare at a sparsely appointed fridge and not see the mayo that’s in plain view. The labels and shapes just blur together for me so, as you can imagine, the grocery store is nothing short of sensory overload.) It was in this bleary eyed, willfully ignorant state that I embarked on this “search for green like an average consumer” experiment.
Having cut the cord to my “insider” knowledge, I quickly found myself resorting to the basest of consumer cues. Brilliant insights ensued, and here’s what I observed:
Brown is green:
Earth tone containers (paper, not plastic, please) and/or earth friendly imagery quickly distinguish products in my mind: “This cereal comes in a brown box … let me check that out, probably good for the rainforest.” Or, “Those cartoon cows sure do look happy, I bet they’re hormone free.” (Turns out they are.) Important note: Though this was a good clue for me to notice which products are green, mainstream consumers told us in our ethnographic research earlier this year that they think earth tone, natural-looking packaging actually makes the product look cheaper/more generic.
Old isn’t good:
I also noticed that I was subconsciously eliminating all traditional brands from my list of possibilities. Why was I doing this I wondered? “Well, if it was a recognizable label, it’s old,” I thought to myself, “and if it’s old, it’s not green – because green is new.” It sounded logical in my mind at least, and by that point it didn’t matter, because my two seconds were up and I had already moved on to something else.
Organic is better:
I found myself being drawn to anything that said “organic.” In my mind organic means a more natural, less environmentally harmful process. All natural had a similar impact on me, but to a lesser extent. We know that mainstream consumers have seen this in exactly the opposite way … but they’re starting to embrace organic.
I also had a hard time believing that anything lathered in sugared Crisco or filled with a brightly colored fluid could come from an eco-concious manufacturer. Apparently, I have this holistic bias that anyone who is really concerned about sustainability would also be concerned about quality.
Good (eco) citizenship is great:
One promotion that stood out was from a major brand donating proceeds to a sustainable cause. I didn’t perceive their product to be particularly green, but their simple promise to support an environmental cause that’s important to me was enough to put them on equal footing with greener products. The plethora of claims out there can be a bit confusing and what you do can mean a lot more than what you say.
The astute will quickly recognize my unscientific thought patterns. But keep in mind, I was not shopping as a scientist, but as a consumer. In every circumstance, I attempted to shoot from the gut and make quick decisions based on emotional impulse. Try this exercise and see what insights pop up for you.