However, just over 40% believe it to be their personalresponsibility. When it comes to lifestyle choices, the future of the planet is not consumers' priority; their purchasing decisions are more likely to be influenced by time and money.
Retail data reveals that customers' loyalty to stores is rooted in the price, range, quality and convenience of products and services, rather than the supplier's environmental policies. For many shoppers, the latter are an added bonus; they are not essential. Yet high-street retailers are trumpeting their environmental and ethical stance within their marketing messages, which raises the issue of whether these companies are in danger of losing touch with what their customers really want.
'It's a lot easier for consumers to make small changes that have little impact on them personally,' says Amanda Wigginton, head of insight at IPC Media. 'But consumers are sometimes willing to do more, if there is a big enough payback, which might be status-driven, altruistic or financial.'
According to Green Matters, while consumers are happy to recycle household waste, convincing them to make more inconvenient changes, such as using their car less frequently, is a much bigger challenge.
Wigginton adds that blanket messages will not work because people's attitude toward the environment is in part determined by their social status, whether that be 'pre-kids male' or 'empty-nester mum'. 'Brands need to understand the interests of each group and make the message relevant to them,' she says.
Whether consumers become more responsive to green issues in the near future is likely to depend on how easy brands make it for them to do so, as well as the cost involved. Companies therefore need to make eco-friendly alternatives readily available at no extra cost, or make familiar brands less environmentally damaging. Ultimately, though, it will be cash that counts, particularly during an economic downturn.
With consumers tightening their belts, getting them to cough up more cash is not going to be easy, regardless of the environmental benefits. Consider plastic bag charges. Although Marks & Spencer's decision to introduce them has been applauded by many, it can be argued that supermarkets such as Tesco would be ill-advised to do likewise because many people will resent paying for something they are accustomed to getting for free. 'It becomes a commercial issue if it drives down footfall, sales or basket sizes,' says Neil Saunders, consulting director at Verdict Research. 'M&S is fortunate in that
its more affluent consumers, particularly food buyers, are unfazed by a 5p charge.'
It is notable that a high-end retailer - M&S - and a budget supermarket - Lidl - are both able to charge customers for plastic bags without it causing a problem, while rivals serving the middle-income market have largely steered clear of following suit. M&S knows its customers are affluent enough to take the extra hit on their wallets, while Lidl's proposition is that the prices of its goods are too low to allow for free bag provision; the problem for Tesco et al is that their customers are more likely to feel the resentment described above. 'M&S has been a brave pioneer, but virtually no one has jumped on the bandwagon and followed. That is very telling,' adds Saunders.
However, some view the credit crunch as an oppor-tunity for marketing environmentally friendly products.
Martin Stead, brand director at EDF Energy, quotes energy regulator Ofgem's statistic that 100,000 Britons switch energy provider every week, so there could be a commercial benefit inherent in taking an environmental stance. 'We will win as a business and brand if we can be part of the solution,' says Stead.
EDF may be buoyed by the view of IPC's Marie Claire, which produced an 'eco chic' issue in June. 'The zeitgeist is very much that it is cool to care,' says editor Marie O'Riordan.
Nonetheless, low-cost service providers and retailers - not always the most ethically sound brands - remain most likely to benefit from an economic downturn. For example, in the Green Matters poll, four-fifths of respondents did not consider ethical issues when buying clothes. This explains the enduring popularity of Primark, despite negative press stories about its labour practices. 'This demonstrates that the majority of consumers don't care about, or haven't considered, those issues,' says Saunders.
Retailers' raison d'etre is not to change the world; their purpose is to efficiently provide the goods and services that people want. 'There is a degree to which they need to be res-ponsible in their actions, but it is not really their duty. Arguably, that's the government's role,' says Saunders. 'If retailers' green efforts had an effect on the bottom line, their shareholders would have plenty to say about it.'
Tesco claims that its environmental strategy is inspired by customer feedback. The supermarket halved the price of energy-saving light bulbs last April and communicated this in terms of the longer-term cost-saving to shoppers; it has sold 10m units to date. 'We are taking the information to consumers so they understand the implications,' says sustainability manager Katherine Symonds. 'The focus is on pay-back. It is about communicating how quickly [our products] will save the customer money.'
Tesco offers what it calls 'green' Clubcard points when re-usable bags are purchased, but Symonds says there are no plans to charge for plastic bags in the near future. 'Our job is to help consumers retain their values in a low-cost environment,' she explains. Symonds admits that the supermarket is making green products available because there is a commercial rationale for doing so. 'We are seeing enthusiasm from consumers,' she says. 'It wouldn't be efficient for us as a brand to have products on the shelves that consumers didn't want.'
So, if marketers genuinely wish to change habits quickly, they must consider incentives beyond the feel-good factor. 'Consumers are more likely to act if they see a personal gain, such as using less energy to save money, or they fear reprimand, such as recycling to avoid council-imposed penalties,' says Russ Lidstone, chief strategy officer at Euro RSCG London.
However, offering such incentives could be difficult for some companies. 'Retailers face significant rises in the price of raw goods this year,' says Saunders.
Wigginton, too, identifies price as a key factor. 'Consumers are genuinely concerned, but they want the green products to be readily available and at the same price that they would expect to pay for non-eco-friendly products.'
Many British consumers view climate change as a less important subject than personal finances, healthcare, immigration and crime, all of which are likely to spark greater public and media interest if the economy slides further into recession. For many, says Lidstone, 'being green is still perceived to be a luxury'.
This article was first published on Marketing