TORONTO - When Loblaw (TSX:L) decided to start selling environment-friendly products 25 years ago, the word green had barely evolved from being a colour description.
The grocery giant was the first major Canadian retailer to showcase a line of green-branded products and wasn't completely confident customers would be willing to pay more to save the planet.
Even the man spearheading the initiative, folksy pitchman Dave Nichol, wouldn't have considered himself a bona-fide tree-hugger.
"Dave used to ask me why I was wasting my bloody time... trying to save the bloody planet," said Paul Uys, who worked with Nichol â€” who died last year at age 73 â€” to launch President's Choice G.R.E.E.N in June 1989.
"But right from the get-go, he had believed that the market, therefore the consumer, was ready for a game change in terms of having the ability to make a difference."
Nathalie St-Pierre, with the Retail Council of Canada, said the appetite for eco-friendly products has grown in the last few decades, with consumers now demanding choices that can lessen their impact on the earth.
"Consumers are concerned," said St-Pierre, the group's vice-president for sustainability in Quebec. "They want to buy green."
Consumers are also taking on a more holistic view about what it means to be green. For instance, some consumers see buying local or organic food and items with less packaging as another way to help the planet.
"There's a large variety of perspectives on what is environmental or green or sustainable, and what it means," St-Pierre said. "It's more embedded with our thinking."
Even though consumers may still want to shop green, they also expect retailers to be able to provide products at comparable prices to competing non-green brands.
"They're being cautious and, so, when they decided to make the purchases, they will look at the price," said St-Pierre. "It's certainly a key factor. It's not because they don't care about the environment. They just have to make choices."
According to Statistics Canada, the proportion of households who say they purchased environmentally friendly cleaning products has been steadily increasing since 2007.
The latest available statistics showed that 85 per cent of respondents said they purchased these goods, an eight per cent increase from four years earlier. Eleven per cent say they always buy green products, compared with nine per cent in 2007.
Statistics Canada conducted the surveys with 15,000 to 21,000 respondents in 2007, 2009 and 2011.
Another study released last month by Nielsen, a global information and measurement company, found that 41 per cent of Canadians recently surveyed said they were willing to pay more for goods or services with a positive social or environmental impact. Forty-four per cent say they have made such a purchase in the past. The Nielsen study involved about 500 Canadian consumers between Feb. 17 to March 7.
Loblaw's pitchman Nichol, who died in September, may not have been a true environmentalist but he had an intuitive business sense, said Uys, who has since retired from the supermarket chain.
"History will say it was possibly en vogue rather than real intention, but there was a growing consumerism around reuse, reduce and recycle," Uys said.
Loblaw's eco-friendly product line of household products and foods started with about 100 items â€” ranging from non-bleached coffee filters to low-fat popcorn. The products, now branded as PC Green, PC Organics and PC Blue Menu items, still remain a large part of the grocer's offering today.
But ad agency executive Jack Bensimon believes that environmentalism for the sake of saving the planet may in fact be waning with consumers.
Instead, he thinks consumers are more likely now to make purchases that benefit themselves first and, if they also help the environment, then it's considered an added bonus.
"There is a slight retrenchment in altruism, solely for the sake of the planet," said Bensimon, the co-founder of Bensimon and Byrne, a Toronto agency that has commissioned previous reports on green consumerism. "Perhaps an offsetting trend is doing the right thing for yourself, which can help the planet in some instances."
In the end, consumers are making these choices based on money.
"The sense people have is that things are more expensive and they can afford less," said Bensimon. "In an environment where consumers are feeling tapped out, it's harder for them to make altruistic decisions on the basis of I'll pay extra to do the right thing for the planet."
Mary MacIsaac, Loblaw's senior director of brands, said consumers want to be able to go green without sacrificing quality or price.
"In the past, consumers were willing to trade off a little bit of performance for the environmentally agenda, but now, performance has to be there," she said. "They don't feel like they have to make the choice, they can have it all."
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