Is Failing to be Green the Same as Smoking?

Green consciousness chart Image: Shelton Group

Oh, the shame! Social embarrassment may soon drive consumers to be more green.

You drag your recycling to the curb every week and wave to your neighbor who never puts out a recycling bin. “What’s up with Bob?” you wonder. “Why doesn’t the man recycle?!”

He’s less embarrassed by your judgment than you think. But that could soon change. Just think about your neighbor’s non-green behavior as if it were smoking — 30 years ago. Its heyday is passing; it’s becoming unacceptable behavior.

And this isn’t just opinion. I know it to be true for a couple of reasons.

In Shelton Group’s ongoing polling of Americans, we ask folks questions related to green activities, such as “How green is your lifestyle?” and “Are you searching for greener products?” We even measure the importance consumers place on saving water and saving energy.

We’ve found that about 80% of U.S. adults are at least occasionally making green product purchases. The greenest segments of this group make up more than 50% of the market. This means most Americans now regularly buy green products and practice sustainable behaviors, and a growing number consider those behaviors to be the new social norm.

Perhaps most important, we recently asked survey respondents, “How embarrassed would you be if someone you admire found out that you got a DUI, smoke, cheat on your taxes, or litter” (among other embarrassing activities)? Although people were far less red-faced about environmentally wasteful activities (driving a gas-guzzling car, not recycling plastic bottles) than those considered socially embarrassing, their answers reveal that sustainability has hit the tipping point. For instance, 26% say they’d be embarrassed if people knew they drive a vehicle that gets 13 or 14 mpg.

Green consciousness chart

Once roughly 20% of the population adopts a behavior, ideas grow exponentially, says The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference author Malcolm Gladwell. As more people define what’s socially acceptable, acting in ways that aren’t environmentally friendly will soon be embarrassing to a greater number of people (maybe even to your neighbor, Bob).

But don’t be too hard on Bob.

It could be that he’s confused about what to do. “What do all of those recycling numbers on the bottom of containers mean, anyway?”

Maybe he’s skeptical because he believes big business isn’t doing enough. We’ve found that many consumers feel they’re off the hook because the manufacturing segment, which could be a huge part of the solution, isn’t doing much better than the average Joe when it comes to being green.

He might just be feeling so overwhelmed by what’s really green, and so confused about what green activities he should be doing, that he simply throws in the towel.

Or, he might not care at all.

We can help tip the scale

The good news is that we each have about 1,000 people in our personal spheres of influence (three degrees of separation). When we’re excited about something, be it recycling, green products, or saving energy, we share that excitement with friends and family — and they, in turn, share what they do or like with their nearest and dearest.

It might not be possible to convert some random guy you meet in the park, but you might raise Bob’s awareness and nudge him toward some level of green-ness. Your enthusiasm might be the ticket, but evangelizing on behalf of the environment isn’t always the best motivator. What motivates him to be green may be saving money, staying healthy, or maintaining his comfort and convenience.

For some, true change will only come once there’s a stigma attached to the activity — and we put our societal foot down on behalf of our homes, our planet, and our future.

Do you think we’ve reached a social tipping point for green practices? Would you be embarrassed if someone you knew found out you weren’t doing something sustainable?