Dorothy Crenshaw April 22, 2009 | 11:22:10

Staying Green When You’re In The Red

For the past several years, just before Earth Day, we’ve done a survey on behalf of Call2Recycle, a battery and product collection and recycling program, about “green guilt,” a term we coined that’s pretty self-explanatory. Green guilt is what you feel when you toss your soda can into the regular garbage, or shove that once-trendy-but-now-obsolete cell phone into the junk drawer.

The good news this year is that we knew we had a story; the survey results showed that green guilt was down by ten percentage points compared to last year. The not-so-good news?  We’re not sure why.  It’s easy to wonder if, given our economic woes, people report less guilt because they’re more apathetic about environmentally responsible behavior.

That glass-half-empty possibility was reported in a New York Times story triggered by our pitch. Yet, if you look at the bigger picture, there’s pretty solid evidence that many simple behaviors like turning off lights and appliances, switching to CFL light bulbs, and recycling battery-powered products – have become habits. Studies suggest a creeping behavior change, and a sense that newly frugal Americans link conserving resources with saving, well, green.

This is intuitive…after all, things like energy and water cost us directly. A recent Harris Poll showed that most Americans feel that environmental and economic goals should be aligned, with a huge majority reporting that their pro-environment behavior has either increased or stayed the same versus one year ago. And corporations aren’t off the hook, either. A Cisco survey reports that twice as many business leaders say they’ll press on with green initiatives as say their pro-environment practices will have to take a back seat due to the economy.

Of course, what people say and what they do aren’t always the same. Yet, my sense is that many of the simple green behaviors documented in the surveys have become habits.  I also suspect that the public outcry over greedy and irresponsible business practices has seeped into other areas, like environmental stewardship.  People aren’t going to let businesses abandon green practices just because times are tough, and we’ll expect no less from the government at the end of the day.  We’re also turning our scrutiny on ourselves. Indulgence is out, sacrifice is in. Who needs guilt?