Results from a January study by The Hartman Group mean bad news for tree-huggers. According to the report, “sustainability” is not a household word. To make matters worse, consumers don’t really even know what it means.

Despite the rising popularity of eco-friendly products, the “Sustainability: the Rise of Consumer Responsibility” report found that consumer familiarity with the term “sustainability” was virtually equal in 2008 and 2007. Slightly more than half of respondents (58 percent) indicated that they were familiar with the term today versus 54 percent in 2007.

Consumers tend to equate “sustainability” with the greater good. “Recurring terms such as ‘responsibility’ and ‘doing the right thing’ emerged from interviews as ways described by consumers to achieve the greater good and link economic, social, and environmental issues important to them,” the report says.
While fellow Americans may benefit from the emphasis on the greater good, corporations making efforts to become more sustainable will be let down to learn that almost three-quarters (71 percent) of respondents reported being uncertain or not knowing which companies support sustainable values. And 75 percent didn’t know which products were sustainable.

Although the organization found that the failing economy might mean green products take a backseat to the essential day-to-day purchases, consumers are still planning to participate in practices that are sustainable and economical.

“Economizing behaviors that consumers associate with sustainability—going to thrift stores, repurposing goods, and opting out of certain purchases—may increase since they dovetail with the zone of personal benefit in terms of economic interests,” the report says.

Click here to download a summary of the Hartman Group report.

–Blair Chancey