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The 3rd-Generation Environmental Consumer, Part One

Whole Earth Catalog

The 3-G Environmental Consumer
The Series

1) Who are they?
2) What are they like?
3) How do they think?

In a recent post, I noted that Summit Spring’s new product, “Raw Water,” was a brilliant new product that really isn’t all that new. Since “Raw Water” is simply untreated spring water, you could say it is, in reality, a very old product, as old as human culture itself — as old, in fact, as life on this planet. However, after 40,000 years of human culture and five or six decades of high tech culture, you could say that consumer attitudes and proclivities have caught up to it. Back to the future, indeed.

But why is this such a brilliant product? My friend Charles thinks, quite respectably, that it’s silliness squared, as do several strangers who have emailed me since. Equally so, why is Haagen Dazs Five, which I praised to the skies in a previous post, such a brilliant product, even though it’s the same-old same-old Haagen Dazs ice cream with a fancy new package and a premium price?

In the process of praising these products, I casually mentioned that they’re perfect products for the “3-G environmental consumer,” or third generation environmentalist. Now, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, well, you’re in good, highly populated company. Two years ago, I was paid a truckload of money by a Fortune 500 company to research environmentalism and consumers. I compiled those results into a portrait of three different generations of “environmentalists” or “environmental” consumers. It was a major insight and my employer produced about a dozen and a half products from those insights. This same insight into the 3-G environmental consumer forms the foundation of products such as raw water and Haagen Dazs Five.

So we’ve decided to celebrate the 41st anniversary of the Whole Earth Catalog — originally the Whole Earth Truck Store and later a storefront in Menlo Park — the first and greatest attempt to create an “environmental” consumer, a catalog which not only introduced most of the world to alternative, earth-friendly consumer goods, but, according to Steve Jobs, was the conceptual template for the World Wide Web itself. And, by chance, we’re also celebrating four weeks early the 71st birthday of its creator, Stewart Brand (“Information wants to be free”). So we present a three-part series (worth about fifty thousand dollar) summarizing what the 3-G environmental consumer is, who that consumer is, and how they think. If dozens of product ideas and startups aren’t rolling out of your brain by the end of the series, well, you have only yourself to blame.

What is a 3-G environmentalist and consumer?
Businesses and manufacturers, whether they know it or not, realize that the 3-G environmental consumer is a major segment of the customer and prospect base. However, they frequently target them as an afterthought or they offer alternative products within an established brand line; the 3-G environmental consumer is not, however, the core of their market identity.

There are literally millions of unmined product and brand ideas available to businesses and manufacturers who understand what the 3-G environmental consumer is, who they are, how they think, and, more importantly, how they differ from previous generations of environmental consumers.

The 1-G Environmental Consumer
First-generation environmental consumers see environmental responsibility as the core of their personal and communal identity. Environmental, health, and safety reasons are the primary drivers of their philosophical, political, economic, purchase, and lifestyle decisions. They are wiling to make significant to exceptional sacrifices in price, convenience, and quality. As a result, they see themselves as exceptionally different, separate from, and often superior to the rest of the population or “consumer” culture and they dress, act, and speak to emphasize this difference and signal their membership in the 1-G environmental subculture. Environmentalism is not a consumer choice so much as a deeply integrated political and social activism, so the world view tends to be strongly liberal and even socialist both politically and economically. They look down on consumer and mass culture from this political vantage point and generally eschew any consumerist or mass culture appeal. Well-formed, integrated, and holistic environmental concerns inform every purchase decision they make as consumers.

2-G Environmental Consumers
Second-generation environmental consumers also view safety and environmental responsibility as the core of their identity, but they are nonetheless firmly at home in the mass consumer world. Like first-generation environmental consumers, they see themselves as different from and even superior to the rest of the population, but they are less likely to separate themselves as a subculture in dress, speech, or acts — often, in fact, choosing other political or social identities other than “environmental” as the subculture they belong to (and using that subculture in dress, speech, and habits to construct their identity). Unlike 1-G environmental consumers, they tend to be middle-class to affluent. Whereas 1-G environmentalists focused their efforts primarily on social and political activism (and their consumerism was an extension of that activism), 2-G environmentalism is primarily consumer- and lifestyle-based with an occasional foray into political activism. However, like 1-G environmentalists, their environmental world view is purposively informed, integrated, and holistic, reaching beyond purchasing decisions into lifestyle and life philosophy. They almost universally trend liberal but don’t see themselves as out of the mainstream on most issues.

3-G Environmental Consumers
Third-generation environmental consumers are firmly entrenched in consumer culture, but environmental concerns are literally hard-wired into their way of thinking. They have been educated from a very young age about safety, health, and environmental issues so, while they feel good and proud of their environmentally-responsible purchase decisions, they don’t see themselves as different or separate from the rest of the population. They are purely “consumer and lifestyle environmentalists”; their environmental concerns almost never rise to the level of political or social activism. Unlike 1-G and 2-G environmentalists, 3-G environmentalism is accretive, syncretic, incomplete, contradictory, and often purposeless. As a result, they do not present a unified political profile — they can just as easily trend conservative as liberal. And unlike 1-G and 2-G environmental consumers, they overwhelmingly trend to more affluent middle- and upper-class economic groups.

That’s a passel of some pretty condensed fancy language, but I’ll sum it up in another prettified package of condensed MBA-speak:

  • For first-generation environmental consumers, environmentalism is a total, shared lifestyle separate and distinct from mainstream consumer culture.
  • For second-generation environmental consumers, environmentalism is an individual political position forward-positioned relative to mainstream consumer culture.
  • For third-generation environmental consumers, environmentalism is one among many purchase influencers within mainstream consumer culture.

    That, my friends, was the summary of months of surveys, interviews, and tons and tons of purchasing data. You can see why “raw water” and Haagen Dazs Five are starting to look like good product ideas! It’s that third group they’re targetting. And there are, trust me, lots and lots of 3-G environmental consumers.

    Next Tuesday: what the 3-G environmental consumer is like.

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