Boomers discover that it's easy being green

In a Christmas shopping season in which former vice president Al Gore won a Nobel Prize for his work alerting the world to the dangers of global warming, more consumers say they are trying to "shop green."

One in five people surveyed said they will buy more eco-friendly products this holiday and shop more at "green" retailers that make efforts to save energy and resources in their stores and operations, according to Deloitte, a consulting firm.

But is the environmental surge by consumers just a flash in the pan? Not likely.

Online retailer says 71% of customers that it surveyed said it was "important to purchase eco-friendly products." "I was stunned by that," says President Ron LaPierre.

And then there are the boomers.

There are now 40 million so-called "green boomers" in the United States, according to a survey being released today by AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons. That's more than half of all boomers, which, at 79 million, make up the largest generation in U.S. history.

While many may not have been early adopters of environmental behaviors, now that boomers are signing on in large numbers, the effects will be great, AARP says.

"Boomers think 'I want to change the world,' " says Tom Nelson, chief operating officer of AARP. "People want to be a part of something."

Focalyst, a New York research firm that surveyed 30,000 boomers and older people for AARP, identified the green boomers by their environmental practices. These ecologically minded boomers are doing everything from buying organic products and goods produced locally (to save on gasoline and air pollution) to supporting companies that give back to the community, Focalyst found.

"I really think it's a beginning" of a change in consumer behavior, says Stacy Janiak, vice chairman of Deloitte. "People are starting to realize they have a voice, and there's more they can influence."

Yes, but are you a 'deep green'?

On a hypothetical color chart, green consumers come in all shades — from slightly green to what some in the eco-world call "deep green."

"You can be aware of the issue but not really doing anything about it, or not aware with blinders on, or aware and taking steps every day to make a difference," says Heather Stern, director of marketing for Focalyst.

Michael West of Montgomery, Ala., probably falls into the slightly green category.

"I do make an effort to shop green when I can," he says. He's replaced his home's light bulbs with compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs that use much less energy, and he pays more each month to get electricity from a "green" provider.

He thought about getting a gas-electric hybrid the last time he bought a car, but the waiting list was too long. "When you gotta have a car, you gotta have a car," he says.

He'll pay some extra for organic foods, but not a lot. "It just makes sense. If you can be more careful, why not?"

Bob Greenberger of Fairfield, Conn., doesn't think of himself as an environmentalist, but he's pretty committed. He's not riding a bike to work or growing vegetables in the backyard.

But he and his wife bought an '07 Camry tm hybrid and "did the whole fluorescent thing" by replacing light bulbs with CFL bulbs in their home.

"We're definitely paying more attention to recycling, too," he says. "But beyond that, we're not that involved."

Sue Lottridge of Estero, Fla., is further along on the green scale. She and her husband had a solar-powered water heater installed this fall, even though it cost more than a regular one. They had a solar heater for their pool and thought, why not?

"We've always done the easy things, like recycling and so forth," she says. "But we thought maybe we could do more."

Also a darker shade of green is Lettie Cunetto of St. Louis.

"I buy 'green' light bulbs, cleaning products, use my own canvas shopping bags and make a big haul to the recycle station every week," she says. "It's something everyone should be passionate about."

Still, a truly "deep green" consumer would be more like the customers of TerraPass, an online company that sells carbon offsets to consumers. These offsets allow consumers to "buy" the equivalent of their carbon emissions for such activities as taking a flight or driving an SUV.

The money then goes to "offset" the impact on the environment by financially supporting projects such as wind farms.

TerraPass says its customers watch their thermostat settings at home (84%), give money to non-profit environmental groups (69%) and have installed CFL light bulbs (64%).

But they've gone beyond the easy green stuff: They're more likely to ride public transit to work (26%), bike to work (26%) or drive a hybrid car (16%). And 6% have solar panels at home, more than double the national average.

"Our customers are quite passionate about climate change," says Erik Blachford, CEO of the San Francisco-based company.

"They're 'deep greens.' "

A green holiday?

Retailers are trying to capitalize on the interest in all things green.

So-called "green initiatives" by retailers range from Eco Options at Home Depot, hd which highlight its energy-saving CFL light bulbs and organic fertilizers, to new offerings of organic skin care and cosmetics at Walgreens, to "green" furniture made from renewable materials such as bamboo at ABC Carpet & Home and Crate & Barrel.

"2007 is the year when 'green' emerged everywhere," according to a report by WSL Strategic Retail, a consulting company for retailers.

In June, started a site called PriceGrabber is a website that consolidates offerings from 11,000 merchants and helps consumers find and compare products. The company analyzed a database of 12 million products on its main site and found about 20,000 "fit the green bill," said LaPierre.

Those include home appliances with the Energy Star designation for being efficient, organic clothing and organic foods, including wine.

"The big benefit (of the site) is for newbies and people who want to start (being green) and don't know where to go," LaPierre says. "They don't want to completely change their lifestyle, but they want to do things a little bit better for the environment."

The growing awareness of environmental issues "has implications for business," says Stern of Focalyst. "It's not a niche anymore."

Consumers are increasingly looking for retailers who adopt green practices, too, says Janiak of Deloitte. "They want to know if the company is using solar panels, or conserving water in the way it operates its stores," she says. That means advertising that it's a green company, and doing in-store promotions to its green products, she says.

"Retailers have to make it easy for us to be green."

The green boomers Focalyst identified are making purchasing and lifestyle decisions that, in part, reflect their growing concern about a legacy that they'll leave behind to their children and grandchildren, she says.

And it's not a matter of income.

A higher percentage of boomers who earn less than $50,000 a year are green compared with those who earn more than $150,000 a year, according to AARP.

"We looked at attitudes and actions. And people are saying: 'I try to buy from companies that give back to their communities. I try to buy brands that are environmentally safe,' " says Stern.

"Those are real actions that they're taking."