You should never use a quote for a lede, but this one warrants it: “Many consumers in the US are prepared to help the environment by recycling their old handsets, but only if there is a financial incentive to do so. Virtue is not seen as its own reward in this case. Operators wishing to present a ‘green’ public face – and [our] survey’s results also show that consumers increasingly favor those that do – should factor these attitudes into their recycling schemes.” Let’s unpack that disheartening quote from ABI Research analyst Michael Morgan. Consumers want companies to be green, even if they themselves won’t do something that promotes sustainability unless they receive financial incentive? What, the most desirable ethics are the ones you can buy, that you don’t actually have to do anything to claim?

This reminds me of a few remarks from Adam Werbach, Steve Newcomb and Robin Chase at Supernova’s “Technology Meets Sustainability” session last week.

In the last six months, there’s been a huge falloff in sustainability, according to former Sierra Club President Adam Werbach. The only people still buying green products are the very rich, Werbach said.

Things are a tiny bit better than that, according to Presidio Graduate School VP Steve Newcomb, who said at Supernova that the only two groups who are still buying green are young people (across the sociocultural board – a great sign) and new mothers.

Still, according to Newcomb, the green moment of 2007/2008 has passed. Of course the fact that many people have had to focus primarily on economic self-preservation during the recession might have had a significant effect on that.

Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase reinforced the notion that consumer motivation is not driven by sustainability, noting that Zipcar was very careful not to use ‘sustainability’ in early marketing campaigns, choosing instead to position the Cambridge, MA-based company as young, urban and hip.

“A lot of car-share companies have failed because they marketed themselves as sustainable instead of young, hip and urban,” Chase said.

So again, you have to ask: are people mistaking consumer behavior for ethical action? Is supporting and/or promoting a brand becasue of a company's etichal actions becoming a substitute for the need to act ethically ourselves? What do you think?

By Mark Alvarez