According to the Eco Pulse 2010 market study recently released by green marketing and advertising agency the Shelton Group, American consumers have become less concerned about the environment, but more interested in energy efficiency as a way to save money. Saving money through energy efficiency has emerged as the primary driver of green purchases among consumers, outweighing feelings of personal responsibility for the state of the environment, the study found.

Nevertheless, energy efficiency for frugality's sake still results in environmental benefits, in effect making many Americans what Eco Pulse's researchers call "accidental environmentalists."

"One of the most important findings is that people don't go green to save the planet," says Suzanne Shelton, president and CEO of the Shelton Group. "Particularly in the built environment, they go green to gain a sense of control, personal satisfaction, and comfort in their homes."

Interest in green products has continued to rise steadily, despite declining motivation to "do the right thing" and "save the environment." Out of the 1,000 people surveyed for Eco Pulse 2010, 64 percent say they are searching for greener products, a slight increase over last year. And the primary reason respondents say they're buying green home improvement products is "to save money" (17 percent), compared with just 10 percent who are concerned about conserving natural resources and 8.6 percent concerned about their families' exposure to toxins and chemicals.

More than half of respondents say they're searching for greener appliances and about 44 percent express an interest in greener home improvement products such as windows, carpet, and insulation. Perhaps not surprisingly, those with children are more likely to be looking for green home improvement products (49 percent) than those with no children in their homes (41 percent). Economic conditions don't appear to be dampening consumer interest in green products, either: 48 percent indicate they are buying the same number of green products despite the recession, and 21 percent say they are actually buying more.

This sustained interest in energy efficiency could be due to a combination of factors, such as rising energy costs and the American economy's continuing troubles. But Shelton thinks a driving factor may be simply that consumers understand energy efficiency better than other green characteristics, such as indoor air quality and life cycle impact.

When asked what "green" means as applied to products, 69 percent of those surveyed chose the generic definition "environmentally friendly," followed most closely by recycled/recyclable (45.5 percent) and energy-efficient (31 percent). Natural (26 percent), renewable (20 percent), and organic (20 percent) also were popular choices. Many of the qualities that have been getting the most play within the design and construction industry are concepts that consumers don't grasp as well as they understand energy efficiency. Fewer consumers defined green as sustainable (12 percent), healthy (10.5 percent), bio-based (9 percent), carbon neutral (7 percent), and water conserving (4 percent).

Again, when consumers were asked for the top three criteria they use to determine whether a home improvement product is green, they overwhelmingly selected energy efficiency (43 percent) and Energy Star qualification (39 percent) as the No. 1 standard. Impact on health (24 percent) or indoor air quality (23 percent) ranked slightly lower, followed by recycled content (16 percent), sustainable material content (13 percent), and water-saving (8 percent).

In another study published by the Shelton Group in 2009, 72 percent of those surveyed said they were interested in owning or renting an energy-efficient home, but less than half said the same about owning or renting a green home.

"Consumers understand energy efficiency, and they know when they have it," Shelton notes. "Green seems so esoteric to most people. Energy efficiency equals compromise, while green equals sacrifice and expense."

To market products, home improvement services, or new homes as green is much less effective than a strategy that defines and details the benefits a consumer can expect to receive. "We would say, lead with energy efficiency if you can, then follow up with the health benefits. If you don't have energy efficiency as a quality of your product, then hammer the healthy benefits," Shelton explains.

Nevertheless, there is increasing understanding among consumers that a green home also is healthy. "What we found is that anyone in the study groups who had a personal experience with a health-related issue that could be exacerbated by their environment or environmental problems is far more educated and is changing their behaviors," Shelton says. "And as we see more and more environmental problems lead to more respiratory problems, I think we'll see consumers getting savvier about how a green home is a healthier home."

Eco Pulse 2010 also found that most consumers depend on a product's label (40 percent) and its content/ingredients/energy-savings package information (38 percent) to tell them that a product is green.

Of the 21 percent of people who say they rely on independent third-party product certifications, 54 percent selected Energy Star as the best third-party certifier, followed by the Green Good Housekeeping Seal (32 percent), and Consumer Reports (30 percent). According to the study, there is much less recognition and awareness of Greenguard (10 percent), Green Seal (9 percent), and LEED (8 percent). Even less recognized were the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, Forest Stewardship Council, Cradle to Cradle, and WaterSense.

"Certifications are not as important or as big a driver as all the people who run certification programs would like them to be," Shelton says.

Notably, though, respondents profiled as "active" green product buyers were more likely than the overall group to select the less well-known certifications. For example, 15 percent of active green buyers selected LEED certification compared with just 8 percent of the overall group.

The abundance of green product certifications now operating on the market—for everything from construction materials and homes to personal care items and supermarket produce—is creating competition and increasing the potential for consumer confusion about precisely what each program certifies and how trustworthy it is. But the study's researchers predict that eventually weaker certifications will be weeded out as awareness and understanding grows, leaving those that have built consumer confidence in their brands.

While energy efficiency currently is the biggest driver of green purchases, Shelton notes that it still ranks low on the list of home improvements that consumers would choose to make if they had ready cash. The firm's most recent Energy Pulse study found that while energy efficiency improvements were top of the list in 2008 when the economy and the housing industry were reeling, in 2009 consumers preferred aesthetic improvements over efficiency, largely because they had retrenched severely, were spending much more time in their homes, and wanted to look at something pretty.

"You might wonder why they're choosing aesthetics and things that won't save them money when we're in a recession, rather than energy-saving features, but it's about control and feeling comfortable," Shelton says.

Plus, most homeowners believe their homes are still using the same amount of energy they used five years ago, despite higher costs. "If they don't think there's a problem, why would they invest in energy efficiency improvements? This is a tremendous education opportunity," she adds.