What’s a Consumer To Do?

I had an experience yesterday that’s parallel to something we see coming up in our ongoing consumer tracking studies.  One of our graphic designers forwarded me a link to a fun little carbon footprint/global impact calculator at ecofoot.org.  Though I wouldn’t classify myself as extremely green, I’d put myself in the above average category.  So, seeking a self-congratulatory pat on the back, I set about completing the questions in the calculator.  I felt particularly smug when it asked questions about meat consumed (I’m a vegetarian), miles per hour driven (I have a mini cooper and only live four miles from work) and recycling completed (I have a very elaborate recycling system I ingeniously devised in my basement).

Well, the smile was instantly smacked off my face when the results revealed it would take three and a half planet earths to maintain my lifestyle.  The culprit?  My air travel.  I speak at 20-30 conferences each year, and our clients are all over the country…so I burn a lot of jet fuel simply doing what I do for a living (and, of course, the great irony is that what I do for a living is about energy efficiency and sustainability).

I mentioned this to a couple of folks in my office, and I was immediately lectured about the need to buy carbon offsets for my travel.  This is where I began to feel like the average, mainstream consumers we study.  How do I know which company to give my money to?  I don’t just speak at conferences, I listen, too, and I’ve heard quite a lot of rumbling that only about half of the sites/companies that sell carbon offsets are legit.  But which half?  I literally assigned a task to someone in the office to research this and get back with me so I can assuage my guilt.

But what’s the mainstream consumer to do?  He/she doesn’t have a team of people to assign to do the research on his/her behalf.  In our upcoming Utility Pulse study we are seeing that about a third of the consumers who have implemented energy efficiency activities did not see the cost savings they expected.  We’re in the process of recontacting these consumers to find out more about what they expected and why they think they haven’t seen the savings.  The simple, real answer is probably that their utility had a rate increase or fuel cost adjustment that offset the savings, or that those consumers are now indulging in higher energy use now that they have efficient appliances.  But the other, more gut wrenching answer is that maybe they replaced the wrong things in their homes.  Maybe they replaced their refrigerator when what they really needed was extra insulation.  Or maybe they upgraded their furnace but didn’t seal up the air leaks in their homes.

This is what consumers fear most when it comes to making energy efficient purchases:  that they’ll do the wrong things.  So in the face of it, like my carbon offsets up until now, they just do nothing.  Thus, if we want to get mainstream Americans conserving energy, we need to educate, educate, educate.  And point them towards reputable, trustworthy sources of information and help.

About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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