Will the real socially responsible consumer please step forward?

Will the real socially responsible consumer please step forward?

Will the Real Socially Responsible Consumer Please Step Forward? James A. Roberts I t appears that the U.S. public has placed the environment and ce...

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Will the Real Socially Responsible Consumer Please Step Forward? James A. Roberts


t appears that the U.S. public has placed the environment and certain social issues at the top of its agenda. This has likely resulted from increased media coverage of environmental disasters and social problems. Environmental concerns first rose to the surface in the 197Os, but subsided in response to a number of legislative initiatives designed to correct the problems. However, increased media coverage of recent environmental disasters has revived the public’s interest. A hole has been discovered in the earth’s ozone layer and medical waste has washed up on the shores of East Coast beaches. Add to these events media coverage of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill, environmental destruction at the hands of Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War, and the Mobro garbage barge’s four-month search for a dump site. Events like these have doubtlessly caught the public’s attention. The spread of cause-related marketing hints that socially conscious consumer behavior may become more popular in the last half of the 1990s. Consumers are buying products from companies that donate part of the proceeds from the sale of the product to local or national charities and causes. They are boycotting real animal fur products, or products that involve the use of animals in product testing. They are also examining a company’s record on the hiring and promoting of minorities and women. All this makes for evidence that social concerns have entered into consumer decision making. And herein lies an opportunity for the astute marketer. Such renewed sensitivity to the environment and social consciousness-unlike the 1960s and 197Os, when emphasis was largely on political solutions to environmental and social ills-focuses on consumer purchasing behavior.

Will the Real Socially




Step Forward?

Repositioning or creating a product that is more socially responsible often requires changes in advertising media appeals, product design, channels of distribution, and packaging. Increasing levels of environmental concern and social consciousness make it likely that both the size and profile of the socially responsible market segments have changed dramatically from earlier research attempts. Success in socially responsive marketing is largely predicated on an improved understanding of the socially responsible consumer. However, marketing managers who plan their appeals to these growing market segments based on past research do so at great peril. In the pages that follow, this analysis will: l describe the segmentation problems confronting companies that wish to market products or services to the socially responsible consumer. l investigate the efficacy of demographics (age, sex, education, occupation, income) as predictors of socially responsible behavior. l measure levels of socially responsible consumer behavior and provide preliminary estimates of the size of the socially responsible market segment(s). l discuss the implications of this study’s results for marketers of socially responsible products or services.


Locating (and Identifying) the Socially Responsible Consumer Recent surceys suggest that concern for the environment and society has mushroomed. For example, Coddington (1990) reports that 79 percent of Americans consider themselves environmentaists. Of these. 82 percent state they have recycled, X3 percent say they have changed their shopping habits to help protect the environment, and 67 percent maintain they would be willing to pay 5 to 10 percent more for environmentally compatible products. A 1992 survey by the Roper Organization found that 5-i percent of Americans reported reading labels to see if products were environmentally safe; 57 percent said they sought out products and packaging made from recycled materials; 34 percent said they had boycotted a company that was careless toward the environment. Nearly one million consumers have purchased the guidebook Shopping,for ~1Better World (Council on Economic Priorities 19941, which explains how they can help save the environment or solve societal problems by purchas-

ing products and services from companies with favorable environmental and social records, Despite these sentiments, however, the present situation appears analogous to the Green Movement in England. Consumers professed their willingness to spend more for green products, but British supermarkets were overstocked with products that those same consumers later claimed were too expensive. Study after study has found that people in the United States do not actually buy the products they claim to prefer. One need only look as far back as the energy crisis of the late 1970s for further corroboration of this phenomenon. What people said and ultimately did were often two different things. Such an attitudebehavior gap is particularly troul~lesome for marketers. Consumer behavior, not expressed concern, allows products to become conimerciall~ viable. As it relates to green consumer behavior, researchers cite the following reasons for this attitude-I,eha\~ior gap: . Green products are too expensive. Price, quality, and convenience are still the most important decision factor; only then may green appeal sway consumers. Only 30 percent of American adults believe comparative environmental claims. Consumers are confused about green products. Businesses hesitate to offer green products because of strict state enforcement of deceptive claims and scrutiny from various environmental organizations. Socially conscious attitudes may not translate into behavior for a variety of reasons. One is the lack of information on a company’s social record. Scant data exist on how most companies perform on any number of social criteria that might affect a consumer’s decision. Again, it is imperative that marketers identify factors that can distinguish between those who merely express concern for the environment and society and those who act upon those concerns in the consumer marketplace. l






revious attempts to segment the market for socially responsible products and services by using demographics have produced conflicting results. Despite the inconsistency of earlier findings on the ability of demographics to explain variations in socially conscious consumer behavior, howelrer, marketers have adopted an upscale profile of the concerned consumer: high income, more education, and prestigious occupation. IIowever, the socially responsible consumer of the 1990s cannot he so narrowly defined. When public opinion on such

issues as environmental concern and social consciousness changes so dramatically, we can expect changes in the demographic bases of opinion. For example, the general increase in levels of environmental concern calls into question the ability of demographics to distinguish adequately between consumers who exhibit varying levels of ecologically conscious consumer behavior. Why the focus on demographics? Because demographics are often used as initial market segmentation criteria. After a market is segmented based on how age, sex, education, occupation, and income correlate with the desired consumer behavior, we then describe the resultant segments with information on various attitudes held, behaviors exhibited, and media used. If demographics are found to be effective in distinguishing between consumers who exhibit vary ing levels of socially responsible consumer behavior, they will greatly aid marketers in their segmentation and overall marketing efforts. Questionnaires were sent to a random (cluster) sample of 1,503 adult U.S. consumers, selected so that the results could be considered representative of the adult consumer population. Of the 1,302 deliverable questionnaires, a total of 605 usable responses were returned-a response rate of 46 percent. Respondents were asked to answer 18 questions, listed in Figure 1, pertaining to how often they performed each consumer behavior described. The response categories were in a five-point Likert format ranging from “always true” (5) to “never true” (1). Higher scores indicated greater levels of socially responsible consumer behavior. Respondents also answered questions related to their age, sex, occupation, income, and education.

Study Results An important finding for marketers is that a segment of socially responsible consumers exists in a size large enough to warrant attention (see Figure 2). But there is also a substantial segment that exhibits little or no concern about social and environmental problems. This is consistent with recent surveys by the Roper organization, which found in 1992that when it comes to the environment, about 20 percent of the U.S. population are considered “true-blue” greens. Holding strong pro-environmental beliefs that they actually live, these people are three times more likely than other consumers to avoid buying products from companies with questionable environmental reputations, and twice as likely to buy green products. In the present sample, approximately 18 percent were found to purchase or use socially responsible products or services always to most of the time. About 43 percent behaved this way often or much of the time. This group is

Will the Real Socially Responsible


Please Step Forward?

Figure 2 Breakdown of the Sample’s Average Score on the Socially Responsible Consumer Behavior Scale

42.9% 40




0 1

Never True

2 Rarely True

3 Sometimes True

4 Mostly True

5 Always True

A higher score designates a higher level of socially responsible consumer behavior:

similar to what Roper called “Sprouts,” who engage in pro-environmental behaviors but are less willing to pay more for socially or environmentally friendly products and services. With roughly 90 million households in the United States, this provides a significant market segment for purveyors of such products and services. At the other end of the continuum, however, 39 percent of the present sample never, rarely, or sometimes exhibited socially responsible consumer behavior. Like Roper’s “Grousers” or “Basic-Browns,” they provide evidence that an ample section of society takes little notice of the impact their spending has on the environment and society. Thus, there appears to be an opportunity for marketers to practice differentiated marketing successfully, selling different products with different appeals to different segments of the marketplace. The statistical information results suggest that people’s sex, income level, and age are relatedthough only slightly-to the likelihood of their behaving socially consciously, whereas education and occupation are not. For example, as in previous surveys, females were found to buy more socially responsibly than males. Such a difference can be important because women still do most of the household shopping. Older consumers were also found to buy somewhat more responsibly. And a negative relationship was found between income and socially responsible consumer behav-


ior, which casts doubt on the theory that socially conscious consumers are members of the upper socioeconomic stratum. Caution is advised, however, in using any of these statistical relationships as a single segmentation variable in marketing efforts designed to reach the socially responsible market. The amount of variation in consumer behavior explained by age, sex, and income reached only 8 percent. Practically speaking, this means that most (92 percent) of the variation in the sample’s behavior is left unexplained. Thus, it is apparent that other factors, such as price, quality, convenience, and attitudes, also drive consumers‘ choice of products. Stronger relationships between demographics and behavior would make the task of communicating with and influencing the less socially responsible consumer much easier and would greatly facilitate the segmentation of markets.



his study’s findings could have important implications for managers who are interested in marketing products with an environmental or socially conscious appeal. Three points are worth summarizing:

1. It appears that large segments of socially responsible consumers do exist. Eighteen percent of Americans reported that they “mostly” to “always” purchase or use products and services that are environmentally friendly or promote social consciousness. That works out to about 16 million households that are highly socially responsible in their consumer behavior. Our data also indicate that nearly 39 percent of Americans never, rarely, or only sometimes purchase or use such products and services-evidence that a large portion of society is not affected by social or environmental appeals. Success in these types of endeavors, then, will be predicated on a clear understanding of what distinguishes one market segment from another. 2. Demographics are not good predictors

of socially responsible consumer behavior. Very little (8 percent) of the variation in behavior of the sample can be explained by demographics. This means that the market segments-especially in terms of demographics-are not well defined. General environmental concern and attention to specific environmental and social issues may be more effective in explaining or predicting whether consumers will purchase products that use socially responsible appeals or possess attributes that are environmentally friendly. It has been suggested that each type of socially responsible consumer behavior has its own cluster of predictors. For example, people who buy products made from recycled paper 82

may be different from those who purchase products low in pollutants. The same holds true for social issues in consumer behavior. Consumers who will not purchase products from companies with weapons contracts, for example, may likely differ from those who make efforts to purchase from companies that donate money to charity. On the other hand, demographics‘ lack of ability to predict socially responsible consumer behavior could also suggest that the market for such products and services is widening-that social and environmental responsibility has expanded or begun to expand to all segments of society. Any company that targets its social and environmental appeals only to females, older citizens, or members of the upper class are likely missing out on a large portion of the market. The key to marketing socially responsible products successfully will be to identify variables (such as relevant attitudes and behavior, personality characteristics, purchase intentions, and so on) that can distinguish between those who are likely to respond to social and environmental appeals and those who are not. 3. Expressed environmental or social

concern does not translate directly into consumer behavior. The high levels of environmental concern and social consciousness expressed in the myriad of surveys on the subject suggest that concern is high but consumer behavior consistent with such concern is lacking. The problem then becomes one of encouraging people to act on their concerns. Marketing efforts should use blended communications that have elements of both brand and image advertising and also include response devices such as mail-in promotional offers, X00/900 telephone numbers, explicit offers, premiums, and coupons. These blended efforts enable marketers to directly measure the behavioral effects of marketing and advertising communications efforts. Such a strategy could prove particularly effective and answer the call for higher accountability on the part of advertising and marketing efforts.


arket segmentation is crucial to the success of any environmental or social appeal. This is true for a number of reasons. First, the scarcity of marketing funds suggests that all companies can cut down on wasted coverage by improving their understanding of their intended target market. Although the market segments found in this study are sizable, about half of the respondents never. rarely. or only occasionally buy or use socially responsible products and services. In addition, the various segments with the socially responsible grouping may require different appeals to encourage the desired behavior. Price may be more important to those less socially conscious, whereas the prod-

uct or company’s impact on the environment or on society may be paramount to the dedicated socially responsible consumer. It still appears that price, quality, convenience, and value are the most important buying criteria in the American marketplace. Socially responsive marketers must realize that an environmental or social appeal may give a product an edge, but it still has to meet other competitive requirements. This is especially true in the value-conscious 1990s. 0 References

“A Content Analysis Claims,” in Leonard 1992 Corzference of thing, San Antonio,

of Environmental Advertising N. Reid, ed., Proceedings of the The American Academy of AduerTexas, 1992, p. 118.

Walter Coddington, “It’s No Fad: Environmentalism Is Now a Fact of Corporate Life,” Marketing News, October 15, 1990, p. 7.


Fred Pearce, “The Consumers Are Not So Green,” Scientist, June 16, 1990, pp. 13-14.


Roper Organization Poll, “The Environment: Public Attitudes and Individual Behavior,” commissioned by S.C. Johnson and Son, Inc., July 1990. Roper Organization, “Environmental Behavior, North America: Canada, Mexico, United States,” commissioned by S.C. Johnson and Son, Inc., 1992. Peter Stisser,

Lee Carlson, Norman Kangun, and Stephen J. Grove,

Council on World: me Responsible Sierra Club

Laura M. Litvan, “Going ‘Green’ in the ‘~OS,” Nation j: Business, 83, 2 (1995): 30-32.


“A Deeper Shade of Green,” March 1994, pp. 24-29.


Joanne Vining and Angela Ebreo, “What Makes a Recycler? A Comparison of Recyclers and Nonrecyclers,” Environment and Behauiol: 22, 1 (1990): 55-73. Richard I’. Wells, “Environmental Performance Will Count in the 199Os,” Marketing News. March 19, 1990. p. 22.

Economic Priorities, Shopping for a Better Quick and Easy Guide to All Your Social& Supermarket Shopping (San Francisco: Books,


Fiermdn, “The Big Muddle Fortune, June 3, 1991, p. 91.

in Green


James D. Gill, Lawrence A. Crosby, and James R. Taylor, “Ecological Concern, Attitudes, and Social Norms in Voting Behavior,” Public Opinion Quarter&, 50 (1986): 537-554.

James A. Roberts is an assistant professor of marketing at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. The author would like to thank the Business Horizons editorial staff and Carlos W. Moore of Baylor University for their help in the preparation of this article.