Because the Consumption of Green Cleaning Supplies Isn’t Very Conspicuous

Photo: iStockphoto

We recently did a Marketplace segment on “conspicuous conservation” — behavior meant to show off one’s environmental bona fides, like driving a Prius or mounting a personal windmill. In the Times today, there’s an article on how the recession has hurt the sales of less-conspicuous green products. Nothing in here that will surprise a reader of this blog, but it’s interesting throughout. Note especially the final line in the excerpt below. It’s a lovely, concise summary of the difference between declared and revealed preferences — and why, if you’re at all interested in describing how the world actually works, you should put all your energy into chasing the latter and ignoring the former.

When Clorox introduced Green Works, its environment-friendly cleaning line, in 2008, it secured an endorsement from the Sierra Club, a nationwide introduction at Wal-Mart, and it vowed that the products would “move natural cleaning into the mainstream.”

Sales that year topped $100 million, and several other major consumer products companies came out with their own “green” cleaning supplies.

But America’s eco-consciousness, it turns out, is fickle. As recession gripped the country, the consumer’s love affair with green products, from recycled toilet paper to organic foods to hybrid cars, faded like a bad infatuation. While farmers’ markets and Prius sales are humming along now, household product makers like Clorox just can’t seem to persuade mainstream customers to buy green again.

Sales of Green Works have fallen to about $60 million a year, and those of other similar products from major brands like Arm & Hammer, Windex, Palmolive, Hefty and Scrubbing Bubbles are sputtering. “Every consumer says, ‘I want to help the environment, I’m looking for eco-friendly products,’ ” said David Donnan, a partner in the consumer products practice at the consulting firm A. T. Kearney. “But if it’s one or two pennies higher in price, they’re not going to buy it. There is a discrepancy between what people say and what they do.”

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  1. Chris says:

    I don’t think it’s a total disconnect – you give me a green product at the same price and I will buy it EVERY time. I want to buy green, but with the extra expense – I can’t afford it.

    It’s not as simple as a disconnect because, all things equal, I would do exactly what I say I want to do and that is to buy green.

    But the extra dollar or more hurts me in ways that affect my economic survival and my monthly budget – which means I have no choice but to buy cheaper when I do want to help the environment and buy green. That still stands but my choice is involuntarily altered by things I can’t control easily – like my income in a bad economy.

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  2. Doc says:

    Right.Buy a Toyota Pious and show the world your creds. Buy green cleaning products and you’ve internalized the feel good component so if it costs more or doesn’t work as well or smells funny it’s easy to backslide since no-one will know. Revealed preference is always the right measure – that’s why opinion polls are basically worthless and easy to skew.

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  3. Allison says:

    I was a consumer for a while of “green” laundry detergent, dishwasher soap, and a few other products. In my experience none of these products worked anywhere near as well as the generics. The dishwasher soap even left the dishes unclean and smelling like rotten eggs. Maybe there are new brands and I should try them again, but my decision to switch was not price based.

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    • Vika says:

      Allison, there are some amazing products out there (and yes – I sell them). There are not in stores. I didn’t come on this website to find ‘customers’, I was actually doing some research about ‘green product popularity’ for my own benefit. Nontheless, I do sell some great stuff, it’s certified green and good for the environment. It also comes with a 6 months 100% money back guarantee. So … let me know and I’m happy to set you up with some samples. :)

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  4. Grog says:

    When I first tried these products I was willing to pay more per unit (normally fluid ounces) for the green products. I stopped buying green cleaning supplies when I realized that I had to use regular products to actually get something clean.

    Consuming a green product in high quantity and a regular product to achieve the same result can’t be greener than just using what works in the first place.

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  5. Kean says:

    What about brands that are perceived to be more trustworthy? Method comes to mind. I buy Method (and other similiar brands) products because with other brands I feel like I need to do research before I know I’m not just buying into Clorox’ greenwashing.

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  6. andrea says:

    Maybe consumers are wising up a bit and realising that you can actually just clean your whole house with vinegar, and all those cleaners are a load of crock?

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  7. john McP says:

    Same occurs daily on any interstate highway, just watch which of the vehicles is moving fastest. Gas prices have not altered behavior to any measurable point yet. People may whine and moan but they keep their foot to the floor. I am passed while driving the speed limit by all manner of 5000lb+ vehicles requiring $100 bills to fill their tanks. They simply do not find gas expensive.

    As an economist myself, i simply watch how money moves and do not listen to the vox populi.

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    • Gary L. says:

      Most people haven’t changed, but some have. For years I drove with a lead foot on the highway, but I’ve been slowing down, particularly over the last couple years. That said, it took comparing my fuel consumption over several months to finally convince me to drive at (or at least, near) the speed limit.

      I was regularly doing 70 MPH in a 55 MPH zone. Now I stick to 58 – 60. An average auto is 15-20% more efficient at 60 MPH than 70 MPH. I figure I’d go out of my way to buy gas if it was 10% cheaper, I should be willing to drive a bit slower to achieve similar savings.

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  8. Have horse, will tilt. says:

    I’ve built my windmill, and I’ve got a deposit down on the horse.

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