Americans' belief in global warming caused by humanity may be declining, but green purchasing and other actions centered on conservation and sustainability are still mostly on the upswing. According to the 2010 Green Living Pulse market study released by marketing and advertising agency the Shelton Group, consumers are increasingly motivated to make greener choices for reasons other than saving the planet.

However, the study also found that Americans' professed ideas about the importance of energy consumption and conservation don't always lead to greener actions.

Attitudes about home energy conservation have shifted somewhat since the 2009 Green Living Pulse, with 68 percent of surveyed consumers indicating that reducing energy consumption at home is important compared with 73 percent last year. While the number of people who believe it is unimportant declined by only one percentage point this year to 19.6 percent, the amount of undecided consumers has nearly doubled since last year, increasing to 12.4 percent from 6.5 percent.

And among those who say reducing home energy usage is important, most respondents report taking only the easiest and least expensive energy-conserving steps, such as replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents or LEDs (59 percent) and purchasing Energy Star-qualified appliances (35 percent in 2010, compared with 49 percent in 2009) and electronics (39 percent). Only 22 percent of consumers surveyed had completed energy-efficient home renovations, such as adding insulation and replacing windows, down from 24.6 percent in 2009. The number of those who said they had purchased a high-efficiency air conditioner, heat pump, or furnace in 2010 fell considerably to about 18 percent, down from 26 percent last year. 

While the gap between Americans' beliefs and actions could indicate a continuing lack of awareness about how inefficient their homes are, the declining number of consumers taking action simply could be a reflection of economic difficulties—despite the fact that taking more aggressive energy-saving steps, including upgrading and improving the home, will save money over the long term.

According to the study, green consumers also are having a difficult time coming to grips with the nation's dwindling freshwater reserves and water conservation activities. When asked what "green" means, only 8 percent mentioned "water conserving" among their top three definitions. The percentage of people professing concern about the nation's freshwater supply dropped to 67 percent this year, down from about 75 percent in 2009, and significantly more consumers said they were "undecided" on this issue—20 percent compared with 14 percent in 2009. But consumers are overwhelmingly willing to accept their individual responsibility in helping conserve water resources; 69 percent said it is important to personally reduce their water usage.

The study also indicates that the understanding of water conservation issues may be on the rise, with fewer people than in 2009 saying that personally reducing their water consumption is unimportant (10 percent) and more people shifting to the undecided group (21 percent). A good thing, too, as each American uses approximately 150 gallons of water each day, making the United States one of the top water consumers globally. Add to that the impending water shortages that 36 states will face within the next three years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

However, consumers' actions aren't yet matching up with their mindsets when it comes to actually reducing their water consumption. Fifty-four percent of those surveyed said they were taking shorter showers instead of baths to save water—a highly subjective and variable method of conservation. Only 23 percent of consumers said they had replaced toilets and/or showerheads with low-flow alternatives. To reduce water usage outside the home, only 6.5 percent said they had installed indigenous plants or other landscaping that helps reduce watering needs, and only about 5 percent had installed a rain barrel or other rainwater collection system.

Consumer interest in green and energy-efficient housing has declined with the rest of the housing market. The study found that fewer green consumers are interested in owning or renting an energy-efficient home in 2010—just 64 percent compared with last year's 72 percent. However, the general anxiety surrounding housing markets could be the cause of the decline. Interestingly, only 43 percent of surveyed consumers said they would be interested in owning or renting a green home, down from 47 percent last year.

"Overall, interest is down. It's a product of the times," says Suzanne Shelton, president and CEO of the Shelton Group. "But what's consistent [from year to year] is that interest in energy-efficient homes clobbers interest in green homes. Consumers don't really understand the differences between green homes and energy-efficient homes."

Green homes are still a vague concept for most consumers, the study found. When asked to name a feature of a green home off the tops of their heads, only 41 percent of the surveyed group were able to think of anything, compared with 53 percent in 2009 who could do so; even fewer could name two features. The most frequently mentioned features of a green home revolved around energy-efficiency and renewable energy: solar energy systems, energy-efficient appliances, and insulation.

Home builders marketing green homes still have a lot of consumer education to do, but Shelton cautions against using too much green jargon. "All these terms that we use—‘no VOCs‘ or ‘made using renewable energy credits’—consumers have no idea what we're talking about," she says. Definitions of a green or energy-efficient home should use plain language and detail the end result of a home's green features, explaining how they will improve the occupants' quality of life, particularly for those consumers who don't fully buy into most environmental messaging.

"Trying to grab Americans by the shoulders and convince them that global warming means they should change their ways isn't going to work," Shelton advises. "For them, it's not about the planet, it's about improving their lifestyles and comfort and saving money."