What happened to the green consumer? Sales of hybrid cars, organic food, and solar panels are on the wane, as recession fears forced the hand of the Whole Foods class. The self-described greenies were supposed to lead as early adopters, a small but growing group of committed and conscious consumers willing to vote with their wallets and drive the green business revolution. Yet a new study published by design firm Continuum suggests that this niche understanding of green behavior may have blinded us to a less faddish and more mainstream trend that fits our more frugal times.
Over a year ago, Continuum, which was one of the first global firms to adopt the Designers Accord, launched the aptly named Colorblind research study to understand how people were re-orienting themselves to the idea of environmentally friendly design. Using sophisticated research techniques such as in context ethnography and follow up conversations with over 7,000 people in an online community setting, Continuum focused their efforts on everyday Americans who may or may not consider themselves green. Kristin Heist, one of the designers who lead the study, explained, "part of our interest in taking on the project was in exploring who we could make sustainability more part of the mainstream. We felt like there were plenty of people chasing after the leading edge 'green' consumers. That was a problem, because, to be completely idealistic for a moment, if we are going to save the world, we need to make everyone a part of it."
What Continuum did differently than most standard research studies on purchase intent was to go behind the cover story everyone tells about green. When you ask the average consumer if they are interested in products that cause less environmental harm, they tend to say yes. But when you follow them around the supermarket or visit them in their own homes, you are able to get closer to the truth. What did Continuum discover?
For most people, the environment is thought of as something out there, disconnected from daily existence, not something the average person interacts with on a day-to-day basis. As such, environmental choices that make sense are the ones that have a direct connection to every day life for themselves and for their family. Recycling topped the list of concerns, rather than more abstract and potentially more pernicious concepts like global warming or toxicity. Everyone is aware of trash and the benefits of reduced waste and recycling, it is something that is tangible that they themselves can control. Recycling is also a concept that fits the more mainstream ethic of conservation, and the more recession-friendly practice of frugality.
All of this points to the green design challenge for the next wave of innovation. Rather than creating expensive sustainable sofas or natural soda elixirs, design products and services that deliver efficiency, resourcefulness, and effectiveness, giving consumers a way to see the benefits of their actions each and every time they interact with a product throughout its life cycle.