ArnieEveryone's talking green, but who's for real and who's a poseur? The question is usually asked, often archly, about businesses, but what of consumers? Do they put words and convictions into action? Or, particularly in these economic times, does lowest price or desire for specific products or brands trump their professed values?

To gain some insight, BBMG, a branding and integrated marketing firm whose client list ranges from CNN to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and includes both Harvard and Stanford universities, looked into not only purchasing behavior connected with standard green issues such as global warming, but a wide range of social values that can influence buying.

Their BBMG Conscious Consumer Report takes both a quantitative and qualitative look at American buyers. BBMG, and its research partners Bagatto and Global Strategy Group, sent ethnographers into the field to spend time with various demographics: single men and women, young marrieds, couples with children and empty nesters in Long Island, N.Y., Kansas City, Kan., and Livermore, Calif. Trained field researchers conducted interviews and observed behavior.

Coupled with the fieldwork are the results of an online national poll.

The resulting samples are organized into groups called Enlighteneds (the 10% of the population most driven by their values), Aspirationals (20% who are more likely to balance ideals with convenience and who switch among social concerns, availability and price), Practicals (30% who are looking for convenience and driven by price, quality and energy efficiency) and Indifferents (40% who are least motivated by social concerns).

Travel, travel companies and related issues do make an appearance in the report. Traveling was the sixth most popular activity/hobby among those polled. Only 3% of Americans always buy carbon offsets when traveling, putting it in last place among 14 socially responsible behaviors. (That number, however, shoots up significantly among Enlighteneds: 21% of that group always buy them.)

Disney ranked as the eighth most socially responsible company, though among Enlighteneds it dropped to ninth. Amex ranks 30th overall, the only other travel-related company on the top 50 list.

But actually, I think the most important lessons for travel marketers are not in the data that are directly related to travel; they're in the full ranking of companies cited as being "most socially responsible."

Whole Foods and Newman's Own hold the No. 1 and 2 positions. No. 3? (Are you sitting down?) Wal-Mart. And General Electric ranks fifth (above Ben & Jerry's), while pharma giant Johnson & Johnson holds No. 7.

I phoned Raphael Bemporad, one of the report's authors and a founder of BBMG, for further insight.

"Both Wal-Mart and GE have made enormous efforts to align themselves with social values, and it seems to have worked," he said. "The majority of GE's current advertising budget supports its 'Ecomagination' campaign. And Wal-Mart changed its slogan from 'Always the lowest price' to 'Save money. Live better.'"

Bemporad said that three factors influence consumers' perceptions of social responsibility. First, values-driven brands such as Whole Foods and Newman's Own are at the very top, where the perception is that responsible behavior is part of the company's DNA. Other high-ranking companies -- Burt's Bees at No. 4, Ben & Jerry's at No. 6 and Tom's of Maine at No. 10 -- started out as cottage industries and are still identified with their early sustainability stories despite their current ownership (Clorox, Unilever and Colgate-Palmolive, respectively). Finally, Wal-Mart and GE are examples of companies that have put tremendous efforts into projects associated with sustainability and were not shy in telling the world about them.

In Europe, where there is far more focus on global warming and, specifically, the travel industry's role in unleashing carbon, large travel companies (airlines in particular) are under attack. "Travel guilt" is a very real phenomenon.

In the U.S., less so. But don't kid yourself, it's coming.

The appearance of Wal-Mart and GE in the top five suggests to me that travel companies have an enormous opportunity to get ahead and stay ahead of the social issues.

But be aware that the report concludes that authentic effort must be present to back up promotion. Greenwashing a company will not cut it.

To download a free white paper with the highlights of the report or to purchase the entire report, go to www.bbmg.com and click on "News and Insights."

E-mail Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].

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