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Green Consumer Behavior Survey

Taiwanese Embrace a Green Premium

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Environmental consciousness is higher than ever among the Taiwanese public, particularly women, middle-aged and older consumers. Precisely where on Taiwan do the green business opportunities abound?

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Taiwanese Embrace a Green Premium

By Fuyuan Hsiao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 450 )

A survey two years ago by the internationally renowned consulting firm Boston Consulting Group (BCG) of 9,000 individuals between the ages of 18 and 65 across nine advanced nations found that consumers across the planet were becoming increasingly "green." Half of the survey's respondents said they regularly purchased green products, while 24 percent said they found a higher price for green products to be acceptable.

Amidst the wave of green consumer behavior sweeping the globe, just how green are Taiwanese consumers?

In late May, CommonWealth Magazine conducted an exclusive public opinion survey focusing on Taiwanese people's shopping, eating, drinking and water usage habits. The survey found that "environmental protection" had become an important consideration among consumers when making a purchase.

Beginning with former U.S. vice president Al Gore's documentary film An Inconvenient Truth, the theory of global warming seems to have overwhelmed that of the skeptics. According to surveys over the past three years by the non-profit U.S. research group Pew Research, however, the proportion of Americans who believe that the average temperature on earth is warming has declined steadily from 77 percent in 2006 to 57 percent last year.

But the Americans have clearly not influenced the Taiwanese. Among respondents to the CommonWealth Magazine Green Consumer Behavior Survey, 87.6 percent accept claims of global warming. Those in the prime years of 20 through 49 were particularly strong in their opinions. Those that had personal experience with weather-related disasters had predictably deep feelings on the subject, with 91.7 percent of residents of southern Taiwan, scene of last year's devastating Typhoon Morakot, saying that they believed the earth was getting hotter.

Green Taiwanese: Women, Middle-aged, Southerners, Easterners

Belief in global warming is also manifest in actual consumer activities.

When making a purchase the two foremost elements of consideration among Taiwanese consumers are environmental friendliness and price. The younger the consumer the more the consideration leans toward price; the older the consumer the more consideration is given to environmental friendliness. Survey respondents in their 30s were the only group in which concern for the product brand outweighed environmental concerns. A product's environmental friendliness was the primary consideration for women respondents and for consumers in their 50s. Among consumers from southern Taiwan, the proportion stating that a product's environmental friendliness was the primary consideration was seven percent greater than those for whom price was the primary consideration. Interestingly, male consumers were more likely to consider price, while women were more likely to consider environmental friendliness over price.

Furthermore, 84.7 percent of Taiwanese consumers gave primary consideration to a product's energy-saving and water-saving qualities when purchasing home electronics, regardless of age group, area of residence or gender – the highest rate of consensus on consumer behavior among respondents to the survey. 

According to statistics compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, about one-quarter of the waste in America's landfills consists of non-recyclable product packaging. Among American women 25 to 34 years old, 20 percent value the degree of environmental friendliness of the packaging of the cosmetics they purchase over the product's effectiveness in fighting the aging process.

Women consumers in Taiwan are ahead of the curve here, with 63 percent of women respondents saying they were most concerned about the environmental friendliness of product packaging, and whether the packaging and product construction materials could be recycled. In contrast, only half of male respondents were concerned about the environmental friendliness of product packaging.

50s, 60s Most Eco-friendly

Among all age groups, those in their 50s and those aged 60 and over showed the most concern about a product's eco-friendliness. Also worth noting here is that among Taiwan's various geographical regions, those expressing the most concern over whether or not the materials used in a product could be recycled were residents of the east coast and outlying islands, where more than 80 percent of respondents said they considered whether or not a product could be recycled at the time of making a purchase.

In the BCG global survey of green consumerism, 24 percent of respondents were willing to pay more for eco-friendly goods. In contrast, 80.3 percent of Taiwanese respondents were amenable to a green premium in the CommonWealth Magazine survey. Among them, nearly 90 percent of respondents in their 50s and 88 percent of east coast and outlying island residents said they were willing to pay more for eco-friendly goods.

How much more is the Taiwanese public prepared to pay to choose relatively eco-friendly products? Respondents willing to pay up to a 10 percent premium were 58.6 percent of the total. About 20 percent of women, respondents in their 20s and those in their 50s said they were willing to pay a premium of up to 20 percent for eco-friendly products.

As a general trend among Taiwanese consumer groups, women, the middle-aged, and residents of southern Taiwan, the east coast and outlying islands are more concerned about a product's "greenness" than their counterparts.

Only when it comes to buying automobiles does the general pattern of male/female green consumer behavior differ. Just over 65 percent of all respondents said they would first consider purchasing a low-emissions hybrid vehicle where economic circumstances permit. In addition, among males, the younger their age, the more willing respondents were to buy a hybrid.

Local Produce a Favorite

Two decades ago British academic Andrea Paxton published research suggesting that food items traveled an average of 4,000 km from production to the consumer's plate. In recent years the "locavore" movement has spread across the world in an effort to address this sort of high-CO2 food production chain. Eating local and in-season has become a broadly accepted dietary maxim, and it also provides a lift for local agricultural economies.

More than 90 percent of the survey's respondents said they preferred local, in-season produce when buying fruits and vegetables.  An overwhelming 98 percent of respondents in their 50s said they prioritized purchase of Taiwan-produced foods, and more than 96 percent of respondents residing in agriculturally important southern and eastern Taiwan expressed a preference for local, in-season produce.

The CommonWealth Magazine survey also showed 86 percent of Taiwanese respondents stating they were willing to eat other foods or less of a given food if its production entails high CO2 emissions. Nearly 77 percent of respondents favored an energy tax levied on industries that emit high levels of greenhouse gases. The Taiwanese public's decision to take a greener path in their individual consumption is gradually translating into an increasingly strong environmental consciousness in the public sphere as well. Just over 69 percent of respondents said they would consider a candidate's environmental policy when casting their votes in elections for public office. 

Stiff Opposition to New Petrochemical Plants

Where the Jhuoshuei River empties into the Taiwan Strait, the biggest land reclamation project in Taiwan's history has been proposed as part of a development project by KuoKuang Petrochemical Technology Co. After four years of environmental impact assessments, the project has yet to be approved amid passionate debate from both opponents and supporters. If completed, this petrochemical project, listed by the government as of critical economic importance, would increase Taiwan's CO2 emissions by 12 million metric tons annually.

The survey results indicate that faced with questions pitting environmental protection against economic development, a majority of Taiwanese are more inclined to err on the side of environmental protection. Nearly half, 45.5 percent, agree that no more new petrochemical or steel plants should be built in Taiwan, while just under 32 percent disagree with that proposition. Male respondents favoring a moratorium on new petrochemical plant construction in Taiwan were markedly high.

The survey revealed some surprising information, such as in answering the question of whether the consumption habits of young people are as "green" as they are imagined to be.

Becoming part of the "green collar" workforce has now become an attractive and sought-after career path among today's young people. But in the CommonWealth Magazine Green Consumer Behavior Survey, those ages 20-39 years old scored the lowest of any age group whether in terms of valuing a product's eco-friendliness, purchasing recyclable materials, or willingness to pay more for a more environmentally friendly product.

Dr. Chris Husbands, dean of the Faculty of Culture and Pedagogy at the University of London's Institute of Education, has also observed this seemingly bizarre phenomenon. He believes that despite having a relatively deeper conception of environmental protection and a keener awareness of climate change, energy conservation and emissions reduction than the previous generation, young people today are addicted to electronic gadgetry. Indeed, young people replace their gadgets more frequently, so their per capita energy consumption may well be higher than that of the previous generation.

According to Husbands's view, environmental consciousness and consumer behavior are often two different things.

Paying heed to whether a product is environmentally friendly is only the first step in green consumer behavior. In his 2009 book Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything, author, psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman bluntly states that from government to industry right down to the consumer, we lack the collective intellectual capacity to live in the green age. According to Goleman's book, the best way to raise the ecological intelligence of the general public is to make product information radically transparent as to the geological, biological and social aspects of any given product. The only truly green products are those that are eco-friendly, beneficial to human health, and non-harmful to the environment where they are produced.

Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy


About the Survey

The 2010 CommonWealth Magazine Green Consumer Behavior Survey was conducted via telephone interview of respondents on May 21-24, 2010. Residential telephones throughout Taiwan were selected at random, from which 1,085 valid responses over the age of 20 were collected, with a confidence level of 95 percent and margin of error of plus/minus three percentage points. The survey results were then weighted after conducting a verification of the representativeness of the sample as regards the respondents' age, gender, education level and area of residence.

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