Although “green” is now very much in the nation’s vernacular, green builders should not assume that consumers are sold on sustainability, Suzanne Shelton, president and CEO of the Shelton Group, told the NAHB National Green Building Conference last month in Dallas.
Shelton said that prospective buyers of green homes are more concerned about what sustainable features will do to improve their lives than to save the planet, and at a time when the state of the economy is the leading concern, consumers are looking to save money on energy but also to avoid paying some of the higher prices they associate with green.
Education is key to motivating mainstream consumers to make sustainable choices, she said, and the trick is to provide information that doesn’t overwhelm them. Armchair Environmentalists Green builders need to know what they’re up against, and Shelton said that they can use data such as findings from her company’s surveys and focus groups to talk to customers about what they really care about.
For instance, one of her surveys found that 96% of the public doesn’t know that electricity is bad for the environment; two-thirds don’t know that electricity is generated by burning coal. A small majority correctly identifies coal-fired electrical generation as the leading cause of global warming; most think it’s traffic. “Consumers know enough about green to get them through a cocktail party conversation,” Shelton said. More than half of those surveyed agreed that it’s important to have a green house, but only about a third could name a green home feature. “People say one thing and do another,” she said. “They are great armchair environmentalists, but not great at doing it themselves.” While 49% of consumers say a company’s environmental policies are an important factor in making a decision to make a purchase, only 21% say they have actually bought a product this way and only 7% can name that product.
“There’s a fuzzy cloud around what’s green,” Shelton said, “and consumers are afraid of making the wrong decision. When they don’t know what to do, they do nothing.” Saving on Energy In the current economic environment, low-cost and no-cost have the greatest appeal, she said, and households are changing their habits in order to cut down their energy consumption — 5% reported they were doing so in 2005 but by 2008 that response had risen to 50%. The majority of home owners today would rather replace leaky windows or inefficient HVAC systems than install granite countertops, according to Shelton, but the higher the price, the less likely they are to embrace a sustainable product.
When asked how green compares in price to the regular product, 80% of those surveyed believe it costs more, she said. Participants in focus groups tend to equate green with extravagance. In an era of pragmatism, builders are challenged with turning this perception around. They should be asking their customers, “Why would you spend more money than you have to on energy?” Shelton said. “It just makes sense.” In a survey last year, 72% said that energy prices were making it hard for them to make ends meet.
However, prospects are not motivated by savings alone. Almost half say they are looking for a more comfortable home. Upgrading energy efficiency makes them feel more in control, and that gives them more peace of mind. Consumers want to know “what’s in it for me?” she said. When it comes to green, they are “not doing it for the greater good. And the reasons that they don’t go green are the same reasons that they do go green. They don’t want to give up comfort, peace of mind, freedom.” “Green” and “sustainable” resonate positively with a majority of buyers, she added, but “conservation” rings best, with 88% of those polled responding positively to the word.
Energy efficiency is an easier sell, she said, because “it’s measurable, tangible, you know it when you’ve done it. Efficiency appeals to the rational part of us.” For example, 33% would purchase a programmable thermostat when they were provided with information on the energy it saves, and another 10.9% would buy the product if they received a rebate.
But the biggest hurdle green builders face is that their customers underestimate their energy consumption. “Sixty-one percent say they don’t use as much electricity today as they did five years ago,” Shelton said. “They are wrong; it has gone up 10%. They have no concept of how much they are actually using.” About two-thirds of survey respondents think that their home is energy-efficient, the same share who report that their home is more than 20 years old, and that points to a “disconnect,” she said.
Builders also need to keep in mind that consumers are “skeptical about green claims.” While 60% are positive about the attention that the environment is receiving in the media, 40% are negative. Roughly half of those polled about green companies “think they do it because it makes them look better and they can sell more stuff,” she said. A full 40% also haven’t bought into the view that humans are responsible for causing global warming, another reason why it’s best not to deviate from the practical or tangible side of a product to explain why it’s beneficial for the environment. When it comes to leading the green lifestyle, 73% of households say they will turn things off or unplug them, but only 18% will buy organic produce or meats. “It is the easy stuff they are willing to do,” she said. “The hard stuff, not so much.”