U.S. Consumers Are Baffled by How to Shop More Sustainably

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A study shows that many want to make better decisions, but don't know how.

Americans say they want to be more sustainable, but they're not sure how to proceed when it comes to making consumer decisions that would reflect that. An interesting new study, conducted by Genomatica, found that 80 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of Republicans believe sustainability is important, but nearly half of these (48 percent) say there are obstacles in the way. These include lack of convenience, availability, and – perhaps most crucially – awareness.

The study revealed a substantial hole when it comes to people's understanding of the products they buy. Many don't read labels (only 56 percent do), but three-quarters of those reading the labels don't understand them; this makes it "nearly impossible to understand if a product is sustainable."

There is confusion about how products are made. Survey participants were shocked to find out that fossil fuels exist in many of their everyday products. From the press release:

"Nearly half (44 percent) of consumers didn’t think disposable water bottles are made using ingredients derived from crude oil and 42 percent didn’t realize personal care products like face moisturizer contains crude oil-based ingredients."

Upon learning this, they expressed feeling disgusted or bothered, which isn't surprising, considering that crude oil is "a nonrenewable resource whose harmful effects on the planet are manifold, causing dangerous emissions, pollution, and multiple oil spills each year" (via FastCo). Other products that participants were surprised to learn contained crude oil were baby sunscreen, disposable plastic bags, and gasoline.

Despite what might be a shocking show of ignorance, there appears to be a genuine desire to do better. One-quarter of people surveyed said they would spend more if brands made a point of promoting sustainable practices. The same number said they've already boycotted brands for failing to be sustainable enough.

It is apparent that eco-friendly brands could do a lot more when it comes to explaining how and why they conduct business the way they do, and could attract a great number of new clients in the process. Genomatica's CEO Christophe Schilling said in a press release,

"There’s a real opportunity for the industry to educate consumers to help them get over these hurdles, and for brands to market and deliver more sustainable products with greater transparency on where they come from to feed this surging demand."

My experience, however, has been that brands with impressive eco credentials already do a good job of this; the problem is that there are so few of them. If you encounter loads of jargon that leave you feeling more confused than before and unable to explain to someone else what it is that makes this company awesome, it's probably greenwashed and not real.

The survey results are, however, fundamentally hopeful. Many people want to do better, and likely will as they become better informed. You know what can help? Read more TreeHugger!