Consumer Corner: It's not easy being green

By MICHELLE GROENKE, United Press International  |  April 21, 2013 at 6:01 AM
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U.S. consumers say they like the idea of eating organic and living a greener lifestyle, but they want to make sure the benefits are worth the extra cost.

A survey last month involving 2,276 U.S. adults found 38 percent of people are concerned about the current and future state of the environment, compared to 31 percent in 2012. More than half of those surveyed, however, (59 percent) said they think labeling food or other items organic is an excuse to charge more, The Harris Poll said.

Men were the most skeptical about organic, with 63 percent saying the labeling of food or other products as organic is an excuse to charge more, versus 54 percent of women

"What surprised us most was that while Americans are showing more concern for the environment, they aren't necessarily willing to pay more to do anything about it," Mike de Vere, president of The Harris Poll, said in a statement.

"While Americans feel better about the economy, many are wary of the 'greenwashing' concept that gives companies a chance to cash in on consumers who want to help the planet but are confused by all the eco-friendly jargon."

Despite recent studies that suggest conventional varieties of produce and meat have the same vitamin and nutrient content as organic products, 55 percent of Americans said they believe organic foods are healthier than non-organic and 41 percent said organic products taste better and/or are fresher than non-organic.

There is still much confusion about best practices when it comes to shopping organic or living an environmentally conscious lifestyle.

The survey found only 23 percent knew what the term "dirty dozen," which refers to the the Environmental Working Group's annual list of foods consumers should always buy organic due to pesticide levels.

Eight in 10 Americans say they will seek out green products, but only 30 percent are willing to pay extra for them. The survey found 60 percent of Americans prefer to use environmentally friendly cleaning supplies because of the chemicals contained in traditional cleaning products.

Nearly half of the people surveyed (48 percent) said they thought washing dishes by hand is more environmentally friendly than using the dishwasher although a study from the University of Bonn in Germany found the dishwasher uses less energy, less water and less soap than hand-washing.

The Organic Trade Association says 81 percent of people report choosing organic products at least sometimes. The Vermont-based group says produce continues to be the most popular organic category in the United States, with 97 percent of organic buyers saying they had purchased organic fruits or vegetables in the past six months.

Breads and grains, dairy and packaged foods all scored above 85 percent among those who purchased organic.

The trade association said 48 percent of those who purchase organic foods said they do so because they are "healthier for me and my children."

More people are embracing the concept of locally sourced products, often putting local before organic in order of preference.

"We buy as locally as we can," award-winning chef Hugh Acheson said in a post on the Georgia Organics website. He goes into more detail on his own website, "My mantra when it comes to provisioning is this: local first, sustainable second, organic third. Local has impact and impact produces change. Change is the process of making the farming sustainable, and once sustainable, the next step is certified organically grown."

Specialty foods manufacturers say "all natural" and "local" rank highest in terms of both current consumer interest and growth over the next three years, according to an industry report released by the Specialty Food Association. The trade organization said the report, prepared by Mintel International and the market research firm SPINS, found 60 percent of specialty food manufacturers believe "local" foods will drive consumer interest in the coming years. More than a third said they view sustainable products as an emerging area of interest in the coming years.

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