July 2011: How much does the environment really matter to consumers?

By , July 6, 2011 9:54 am

July 2011, Market Intelligence Article for Sustainable Business Magazine, reproduced with permission.

Peter Winters, President, Haddock Research & Branding

Double-click on the offprint below to see it in a larger size.


Businesses executives, such as those working in the microgeneration sector, might well wonder how important consumers’ environmental concerns are in creating demand for their products. Market researchers need to do a better job at understanding and explaining what survey evidence tells us, given that different research approaches can produce quite different results. As the number of research methodologies grows, market research should be more evidence-based using a process of triangulation to understand how each approach provides complementary understanding, and to take a multi-disciplinary perspective.


“Why do your surveys understate how concerned people are about the environment?” asked Jonathon Porritt in his keynote speech to the 2007 Market Research Society conference[1]. “This leads businesses to see relatively little consumer demand for making their products ‘environmentally-friendly’”. He raises an important point, yet understanding human decision-making, and attributing causality, are tricky things to do.

Consider the issue of how much ‘concern about the environment’ is influencing English people to choose a microgeneration system. If you ask people directly, as was done in a 2008 BERR study, they will tend to say that environmental concerns are ‘not that important in choosing a system’[2] (page 127). As my good friend Jasper Garland told me following his experience of manning a renewables stand at the Suffolk Show, consumers just ask questions about money, not carbon. Yet, our Environmental Choices survey demonstrates[3] that it is people who are most concerned about climate change who are most likely to be interested in installing a specific microgeneration device. Using this comparative approach, we might then conclude that environmental concern is actually very important in driving microgeneration product choice.

It seems that different research approaches can produce quite different results. As the number of research methodologies grows, I would argue that market research should be more evidence-based, using a process of triangulation[4] to understand how each approach provides complementary understanding, and to take a multi-disciplinary perspective.

As a test, given Lord Stern’s urging that people should stop eating meat to protect the climate[5], I propose a study to measure how much people’s concern about the environment is influencing them to become vegetarian (Jonathon Porritt discusses the issue of eating less meat).  Market research teams would address this question using different methodologies, and comparing the intra-methodology and inter-methodology insights would provide more objective evidence regarding the information each approach provides.

One approach is DIRECTLY ASKING people about the factors which influence their decision-making. Using this approach, people will tend to concentrate on very conscious, practical and functional criteria relevant at the point of purchase rather than give due consideration to all influences.

With REVEALED PREFERENCE techniques it is possible to uncover more emotional and less conscious reasons for the way people act, by getting respondents to undertake tasks and then inferring what is driving their decisions. Yet can these techniques differentiate between the different types of role a factor might have (trigger, hygiene, differentiating), and how this might vary between different types of people?

CONSUMER JOURNEY studies follow the decision-making process of target respondents, but how much is it possible to collect the data relevant to what really influences them, and is there a danger of missing the wood for the trees?

A COMPARATIVE APPROACH is an approach which compares groups of individuals, and is closely associated with the experimental approach of the natural sciences. There are dangers of not including important casual factors within the analysis, of mistaking correlation for causality and not recognising the importance of individual actors.

Market research can benefit from broader discussions within the social sciences – such as between biographical history and the comparative historical approach championed by Jared Diamond[6]. Consider the following delightful example written by John DiNardo[7] (page 12; pdf):

“What does it mean to say that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow caused the Great Chicago Fire of 1871? …

One dark night, when people were in bed,

Mrs. O’ Leary lit a lantern in her shed,

The cow kicked it over, winked its eye, and said,

There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight.

as to the “ultimate” cause of the fire, we might say the cause of the fire was Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. We could also say that Mrs. O’Leary (and not her cow) was the cause of the fire since her placing of the lantern in the barn had the predictable consequence of igniting a blaze that would engulf much of Chicago. More policy relevant perhaps, we could cite lax fire regulations as the cause: perhaps Mrs. O’Leary would have been more cautious had the placing of a lantern in one’s barn been illegal.”

One might expect that the analyst using a CONSUMER JOURNEY approach be more interested in Mrs. O’Leary (though probably not her cow), and an analyst using a COMPARATIVE approach would focus on fire regulations.

[1] Jonathon Porritt to headline MRS Golden Jubilee Conference, http://www.marketresearchworld.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=988&Itemid=76

“Chair of Programme Team Kevin McLean explains: “Sustainability is central to Research 2007’s focus on the people and concepts that will pave the way for the next half century.  Market and social research has a central role to play in identifying and responding to the issues of climate change and sustainability that will not only safeguard the future of our planet, but help businesses of all sizes overcome the challenges and make the most of the opportunities presented by environmental insight.”

[2] Page 127, ‘The growth potential for Microgeneration in England, Wales and Scotland’, (2008), Element Energy & TNS, Appendix 1: main appendix : Final Appendix for Microgeneration Steering Board, 02/06/2008


PDF – http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http://www.berr.gov.uk/files/file46421.pdf

[3] How climate change concern can motivate people to be interested in your offering, Market Intelligence article for Sustainable Business magazine, April 2010, http://low-carbon-marketing.com/april-2010-how-climate-change-concern-can-motivate-people-to-be-interested-in-your-offering.php/

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triangulation_(social_science)

“Triangulation is a powerful technique that facilitates validation of data through cross verification from more than two sources. In particular, it refers to the application and combination of several research methodologies in the study of the same phenomenon.”

[5] ‘Climate chief Lord Stern: give up meat to save the planet’ The Times, October 27, 2009 http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/environment/article6891362.ece .

Jonathon Porritt discusses the case for eating less meat in the Foreword to the 2004 publication “The Global Benefits of Eating Less Meat”, by Mark Gold, http://www.wessa.org.za/documents/meat_free_mondays/global_benefits_of_eating_less_meat.pdf

[6] Natural Experiments of History, Jared Diamond and James Robinson, 2010

[7] A Review of Freakonomcs, John DiNardo, December 10, 2005, Page 12  http://www.noapparentmotive.org/papers/DiNardo_on_Freakonomics.pdf



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