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As eco-buzz grows, survey warns companies of green trap

America's consumers offer a warning to businesses looking to ride the green wave: either back your eco-friendly words with actions or risk a backlash.

America's consumers offer a warning to business leaders and marketers looking to ride the green wave: either back your eco-friendly words with socially responsible actions or risk a backlash.

The first major study to combine field observations with a national survey on purchasing behavior and social values has found increasingly conscious consumers who are demanding that companies be transparent about their practices and accountable for their impact on people and the planet.

According to the inaugural BBMG Conscious Consumer Report, nearly 9 in 10 Americans say that the words "conscious consumer" describe them well and that they are more likely to buy from companies that manufacture energy-efficient products (90 percent), promote health and safety benefits (88 percent), support fair labor and trade practices (87 percent), and commit to environment-friendly practices (87 percent), if products are of equal quality and price.

Conducted by branding and marketing agency BBMG, in conjunction with research partners Global Strategy Group and Bagatto, the report combines ethnographic research in three U.S. markets with a national survey of 2,007 adults to reveal how companies can reach, inspire, and motivate today's savvy and values-driven consumers.

In a world of green clutter, conscious consumers expect companies to do more than make eco-friendly claims. They demand transparency and accountability across every level of business practice. Avoiding the green trap means authentically backing your words with socially responsible actions, says Raphael Bemporad, founding partner of BBMG.

Other findings from the report:

• Personal issues are most important. Consumers' most important issues are the ones that affect their health and wellness most directly, such as safe drinking water (90 percent), clean air (86 percent) and finding cures for diseases like cancer, AIDS and Alzheimers (84 percent). By comparison, only 63 percent describe global warming as the most or a very important issue.

• Greater than green. Americans readily self-identify as "conscious consumers" (88 percent well, 37 percent very well), "socially responsible" (88 percent well, 39 percent very well) and "environmentally friendly" (86 percent well, 34 percent very well). By contrast, fewer respondents self-identify as "green" (65 percent well, 18 percent very well), which is viewed as more exclusive.

• Beyond convenience. While price (58 percent very important) and quality (66 percent very important) are paramount, convenience (34 percent very important) has been edged out by more socially relevant attributes: where a product is made (44 percent very important), how energy efficient it is (41 percent very important) and its health benefits (36 percent very important) are all integral to consumers' purchasing decisions.

• Most socially responsible companies? Whole Foods Market (22 percent) tops the list, followed by Newman's Own (19 percent), Wal-Mart (18 percent), Burt's Bees (17 percent), and General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, and Ben & Jerry's (all 16 percent).