Why Surveys Often Paint a False Green Picture of Consumers

Written by Martin Nyløkke Gronemann

Surveys can be a powerful method for validating insights about consumers, but—when it comes to understanding the consumer impact of environmentally friendly products and the barriers that keep people from going green—it’s unwise to rely on them.

The gap between self-perception and green action

Edelman’s 2010 Good Purpose survey says that consumers rank the environment as their number-one cause. The 2009 Cone Consumer Environmental Survey revealed that 35 percent of Americans have a higher interest in the environment today than they did a year ago. Another 2009 survey, conducted by Yahoo, revealed that 77 percent of American consumers describe themselves as green.

It is tempting to conclude from this data that green consumerism is a safe haven and that investments in green products will automatically lead to increased return and enhancement of brand value. Unfortunately, purchasing behavior shows that this is not the case. As mentioned in another article in our “Green Conversation” series, U.S. sales of SUVs increased significantly in 2011 despite a more than 20 percent increase in gas prices. Similarly, in Denmark the number of households that have installed solar power hasn’t exceeded 2 percent, even though most households would benefit financially from doing so. Why do surveys seem to lead us astray when we try to determine consumers’ willingness to adopt more environmentally friendly lifestyles?

Poor surveys alone are not to be blamed

Of course, there is a chance that the surveys are badly constructed. The survey questions might be poorly phrased or the conclusions skewed because partisan stakeholders have commissioned the findings.
It’s hardly surprising that Rockwell Automation, a manufacturer of equipment to make factories more efficient, finds that Americans want “more energy-efficient production” and that Green Seal, a purveyor of eco-labels, finds that one in three consumers say they don’t know how to tell if green-product claims are true. But conflicts of interest aside, there’s a more profound reason why surveys don’t fully capture the reality of consumers.

Surveys oversimplify human decision-making

Surveys are distorted by respondents’ cognitive biases—the tendency to make systematic errors in decision-making. These biases influence the way we think and act, often leading to inaccurate judgment or illogical interpretation.

The cognitive bias called “framing” is evidence of our brains’ sensitivity to the ways information is presented. Due to their simplifying nature, survey questions can’t fully mirror the complex motivations and balances that take place in our brains when we make decisions in everyday life. Surveys present respondents with a limited number of options—for example, “Do you perceive yourself as being green?” [Yes, No, or Don’t Know]. When a survey asks people point-blank: “Are you green?” a disproportionate share of people will think. “Sure, I’m green.” When answering the survey, we don’t think about whether we really want to spend extra money buying green electricity or buying organic food if this means we can’t buy a new TV or take our family out for dinner. In real life, consumers must constantly prioritize. Decisions related to an environmentally friendly lifestyle cannot be separated from other decisions consumers must make.
The consequence is that survey answers easily end up being inaccurate, and are not representative of the decisions people would make in everyday life.

Surveys can validate but can’t explore

This doesn’t mean that surveys are useless. Surveys can be used to validate information disclosed through exploratory methodologies like ethnography. Insights into consumers’ behavioral patterns can then be used to predict how they will relate to a given product or service.

What are your sustainability decisions based on?

As you think about how to connect sustainability to your products and services, it’s useful to step back and think about the kind of data you’re working with. If everything hinges on a survey or two, you may be missing the individual and sociocultural drivers that reside below the surface. If you’re confident that you’ve taken a deep dive into consumers’ real-world issues and you’ve quantified and validated those insights, you’re already in a better position to make informed decisions.


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