Will Going Green Lose Some Gusto?

Everyone seems to be going green, but may be another "We Are the World" moment.

February 10, 2009, 11:36 PM

July 12, 2007 — -- This year as consumers switch to energy-efficient light bulbs and trade in their SUVs for Priuses, a cliché normally reserved for fashion magazines has made its way into nightly newscasts and daily newspapers: Green is the new black.

In 2006, a PowerPoint presentation -- voiced by Al Gore in "An Inconvenient Truth" -- ushered in an unprecedented era of environmental awareness. The next thing you knew magazines published green issues (Vanity Fair, Domino), actors waxed poetic about reducing carbon emissions (Leonardo DiCaprio) and musicians rocked out on a global scale under the auspices of "saving ourselves" from global warming (Live Earth).

But are Americans experiencing "green fatigue"? The ratings for Live Earth, which was billed as a must-see event, were dismal. The American broadcast drew just 2.7 million viewers, making it the least-watched U.S. program on Saturday night. Despite its undeniable entrenchment in pop culture and media, some experts say that the current incarnation of the green movement is just another "We Are the World" moment that consumers and businesses won't be able to sustain over the long term.

"It's a very difficult thing to change culture," Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for NPD Group, told ABCNEWS.com, and Ikea charging 5 cents for carrying its plastic bags out of the store instead of bringing in your own isn't going to do it, he said.

Instead, Cohen believes that most companies are taking advantage of the celebrity support and the media's furor over the issue of global warming to make a profit -- not because they are contributing to some greater societal good or feel a corporate responsibility to do so.

"This is the story of the tortoise and hare," Cohen said. "There are some companies that are coming out of the gate and using it as a marketing tool with no genuine long-term plan to it."

Others, he said, will try to make it part of their corporate identity. The companies in the green movement for the long haul will be the ones who win with consumers, he said. Companies like Chipotle, which only uses organic food, and Bare Escentuals, which produces all-natural cosmetics, are already well on their way, according to Cohen.

Despite that, the analyst said he believes the green movement will continue, but not with the current level of excitement.

"As we know it, it's not going to sustain itself," he said. "It will truly become a lifestyle of businesses and consumers, but it's not going to be done with the glamour and gusto that it's done with today."

Regardless of companies' "greening" motives, whether they result in creation of products like a Lexus hybrid SUV or the creation of a more environmentally-friendly workplace, consumers may not have an insatiable appetite for what's being offered.

According to unpublished NPD Group data, while 57 percent of people are interested in eco-friendly products, only 19 percent believe that they are worth paying extra money for or that they actually make a difference.

"A lot of the companies are a lot more interested in speaking in the environmental conversation" than effecting real change, Cohen said, and savvy consumers are beginning to realize that.

"'If they don't make it easy for me, then I'm not going to be bothered with it,'" Cohen said, describing what consumers have told him in his research. "'I'm not willing to sacrifice my money to do that.'"

This attitude was reflected in concertgoers who attended Live Earth, he said.

"The majority of the people at the rock concert -- they believed that it was good information, but they're not going to change their lifestyle because of it," he said.

Michael Levine, a veteran publicist who has represented public figures from Charlton Heston to Jon Stewart, said that the celebrity involvement in the movement, like that at Live Earth, was just an attention getter, but not one that will keep people interested.

"I believe this environmental movement is very wide, but very shallow," Levine said. "It gets their temporary attention. It's not sticky."

But celebrities aren't the only ones jumping on the green bandwagon. This fall, Women's Health, which declined to speak to ABCNEWS.com because it was just beginning its planning process, announced Monday that it will release a "blue" issue this fall, focusing on issues surrounding water.

Similarly, bottled water, both for its nonrecyclable containers and its production costs, has become an environmental hot topic. High-profile mayors like Gavin Newsom in San Francisco and Rocky Anderson in Salt Lake City banned the use of bottled water in government offices, while nationwide some restaurants are eliminating it from their menus as well.

In a report last week, ABC News crunched the numbers on bottled water -- taking into account mileage and fuel requirements -- and found that even before you drink that one-liter (or 33.8 ounce) bottle of French water in Chicago, you've already consumed roughly 2 ounces of oil, which doesn't include the petroleum used to make the plastic. In addition, the entire process -- bottling, packaging and shipping -- creates pollution and greenhouse gases.

Will blue then become the new green? Only time will tell. History, however, tells a more interesting story of how causes have been embraced by the popular culture only to be discarded later.

This isn't the first time green has gone chic, according to Robert Thompson, the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

"Of course we've been through this before -- the whole consciousness about pollution [when] we had the first Earth Day" in 1970, Thompson said. "There was a real kind of environmental awareness. Then it began to sort of fade away."

"Causes that have long-term staying power tend to be those that are affecting our everyday life in ways that we actually recognize," Thompson said. Typically, the environment has not been one of those causes, he continued.

As long ago as 1972, the waning attention span of the American public for environmental issues has been reported. That year, Anthony Downs, a Brookings Institute scholar, wrote a paper called "The Issue Attention Cycle" about how environmental issues are perceived by the public.

The paper details five stages from a public unaware of the problem to an enthusiastic response and finally to waning enthusiasm. The cycle has held up with environmental issues over the years.

Many causes -- such as Ethiopia famine relief that resulted in a LiveAid concert in 1985 -- have "burned brightly and sort of disappeared," Thompson said.

What largely determines what stays in the forefront of people's minds, according to Thompson, is what the media decides to cover, although celebrity support doesn't hurt.

Still, Thompson said that he believes this time around the pop culture carousel will be different for one reason: politicians.

"I think that the green cause is different in that it is beginning to be expressed in legislation," he said.

David Willett, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, agrees.

"In terms of big issues, nothing's bigger than global warming," Willett said. "There are a lot more cities and county governments and states that are taking action."

Both New Jersey and Hawaii have set mandatory greenhouse gas reductions, while mayors around the country are signing on to a climate change agreement.

Willett believes that economic issues will sustain consumers interest in the green movement.

"[Green] technologies are just going to stay with us forever and get better," he said. "Once you switch to those products and are saving money, there's less incentive to go back to a less efficient, more expensive product."

But will businesses keep making these products?

"There have been people who have wanted to lead a greener lifestyle for a long time. More and more businesses are realizing that it's a profitable business model," Willet said. "What time will tell is whether businesses will be able to make money in the long term on it…Green lifestyle as purely marketing -- those [companies] may not be around as long."

Eric Horng contributed to this report.

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