Why aren’t automakers connecting better with green-minded consumers z gastroenterol

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A longtime friend of mine, let’s call her Jen, is a children’s book illustrator and genuine tree-hugger. She has a farmette in the foothills back East and likes to hike and ski, with her two dogs along for the ride. Her personal values are as green as they get. But a Prius doesn’t work for her, let alone anything that plugs in. So what did she buy a couple of years ago when it was time for a new car? A Jeep Cherokee. She didn’t really cross-shop. "I need a Jeep," was what it came down to in Jen’s mind.

She realized it burned more gas than she’d like to burn in an ideal world. She compartmentalizes her eco-ethics as far as car buying is concerned. So when considering her choices she just focused on the usual options and price. The idea that she might help the environment by cross-shopping — among similarly equipped competing vehicles or even among Cherokee trims that get a few more mpg — didn’t cross her mind. Why should it? Gasoline prices were back below $3 a gallon. Other than the cacophony about Tesla and other electric cars — fascinating, perhaps, but irrelevant as far as her needs were concerned — little in the automotive mediascape spoke to how vehicle choices might matter for the planet.

How big is the potentially receptive population of consumers who might act on their environmental ethic when car shopping, if given the knowledge and encouragement? As far as I know, no one has systematically estimated it, at least publicly, so that would be a useful market research task.

We do know that many consumers are concerned about the environment and increasingly so about global warming. The University of Michigan Energy Survey, which I direct, has found that the number of Americans who view global warming as the aspect of the environment most affected by energy use has now risen to 36 percent, compared with 25 percent when we launched the survey in 2013. It also finds that more Americans (over 60 percent) express higher levels of concern about the environmental impact of energy than about its affordability.

Moreover, many consumers see protecting the environment as a shared responsibility, with a role for individuals as well as government and industry. A Green Gauge survey that asked "Who should take the lead in addressing environmental problems?" found that 38 percent of the public said "individual Americans," compared with 45 percent saying "federal government" and 29 percent saying "business and industry."

That’s been the situation for several years, with fuel economy again low on the list of what consumers consider important. Most buyer surveys don’t even ask about environmental performance, and when they do, it is usually tied to alternative-fuel vehicles rather than more efficient gasoline vehicles.

Who can lead such an effort? It may be difficult for automakers because of their competitive positions. But it could be an opportunity for major dealer groups, perhaps collaborating with automotive media sites, which cover the full range of brands and already provide comparison shopping information and advice on other vehicle features.

Government should stick to providing objective data; the EPA fuel economy label values are fine in this regard. The cultivation of eco-buying will require a long-haul effort, which can’t risk being torqued around by changing political proclivities.

We can’t realistically expect green marketing initiatives to engage all consumers or fully eliminate the market disconnect. But a well-designed, broad-based effort could engage sizable segments of the market, far more than the few percent now being moved at very high cost and with limited results by narrowly focusing on EVs. Such an effort will make it easier for automakers to realize some market value for the design changes needed to meet ever higher fuel economy goals. It’s certainly worth a shot.