Sustainable Design: Growbooks

Consumer Survey

My partner and I had a discussion about whether or not people really care about sustainability and if they are willing to pay more for a product because it follows sustainable principles and is certified by a reputable organization. This whole issue really puts into perspective what Growbooks means to me and whether or not it would have the same value to our potential customers. In essence the value that I see behind Growbooks is that it’s an educational platform that provides the tools to grow a variety of plants and culminate experience around the importance of sustainability and the aspect of a product’s end-of-life mission. And when you really push away the fluff in this value proposition you see two main items that might not resonate with the public.

  1. Growing plants
  2. Consumer product end-of-life missions

Do these things actually matter to people? Do parents want their children to learn how to grow plants? Do adults want to learn how to grow plants? Do consumers actually care about material reutilization when their product reaches its end-of-life? Do they even know what options exist? And are they willing to pay more if a company offers sustainable practices/certifications? It’s along the same line of questions I posed in my previous post and as much as I want to shout, “Yes people care about this!” in reality this may not be the case. And having these questions answered will help me see whether people are interested or not in Growbooks. It sounds like a cool idea (at least to me, haha), but if the public doesn’t respond well to it, then it’s an idea that should be shelved. There are so many other product ideas that can be pursued in terms of growing plants and sustainability.

So I put together a consumer survey. I always get so nervous when I put these together! It’s an event where the public can judge your baby. Now I made the survey quite vague. Instead of asking, “Would you buy a Growbook and for how much???” I asked a multitude of different questions that are implicitly related to Growbooks. There’s a relationship between the product and the question, but it’s not explicit. It allowed me to put a smoke screen over the product because I want to ask much deeper questions. So I broke the survey down into four parts. Firstly, I wanted to see how many people in my survey pool actually grow plants (indoors and outdoors). If they are growers I have them answer a series of questions (second part) that seeks to understand the stages of plant growth they are involved in as well as their purchasing habits. People who do not grow plants are filtered into the third section. So the third part of the survey seeks to understand how sustainability as a buzzword and a method influences their purchasing patterns. It also tries to find what aspects of sustainability are important to them and what concepts/certifications they know and understand. The fourth part of the survey then shows them a series of certified products (higher-end) and has them answer whether or not they would purchase it. This allowed me to slip in the Growbooks idea (minus the seedpod) to see whether or not they were open to a book with an end-of-life mission–composting. Now I’m not the best at surveys, there are sooooooo many things I could improve upon, but this was a way to just get some feelers out into the community about these subjects.

So if you are interested in seeing my quickly strewn together survey, you can check it out here:

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1gH1jKz3Is6ofmIWyHlVN3BMLfou-4lE1E4pJcNVURUQ/edit

Now this survey was only posted on Reddit (click on the link to access the page I used). I had about 16 responses. This in no way can accurately judge the market(s), but it does provide more insight than just the thoughts in my head. So I’m going to take the time to analyze it and make broad assumptions.

Demographics: So almost 70% of the people who took my survey fell into the 22 to 37 age-range. It’s important to note that I split the age groups up in terms of millennials, gen x, gen z, baby boomers, etc. Definitely not the best way to pinpoint age groups, so learn from my mistakes. Another 70% of people who took my survey identified as female. I had around 56% of people living in houses and another 31% living in apartments. It’s also interesting to see that I had a wide variety of annual income from my pool of participants.

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Household income and size pie charts

Now for some opinion-generated questions. Almost 70% of people thought that children should learn how to grow plants whereas 50% thought that adults should learn how to grow plants. These are hard questions to analyze because it just shows an opinion versus an action. People might think this, but they might not do anything about it. So I really don’t think I can correctly assume that people would purchase a Growbook to teach kids how to plant even if they think children should learn how to grow plants. There’s no real relationship here, so my bad on these questions. It’s a learning process.

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Should children/adults learn how to grow plants pie charts

I also want to note that 63% of participants liked gardening and so they took part 2 of my survey. I didn’t expect that many people (granted out of a pool of 16), would enjoy growing plants. That’s pretty cool.

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Growers vs non-growers pie charts

So if the participant answered that they like to grow plants (this was specified in the survey) they then proceeded to part 2 of the survey. It’s interesting because I ask how many houseplants they have and I thought people would include their garden plots as part of this, but that’s not the case. I had about 30% out of 10 participants own 0 houseplants. Whereas 100% of people answered that they had a garden. Now whether or not they categorize their houseplants as a garden or whatever else, that’s a discrepancy. You can see that I really didn’t think about all of the different cases involved with growing plants when I asked the house plant question. So now I know not to assume that everyone will interpret a question exactly like I do.

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Amount of plants questions

I also wanted to see how many people grew plants for consumption versus decoration, etc. This would help pinpoint the types of seeds people may be interested in growing if they purchased the Growbooks. It was interesting to note that about 70% of people grow their plants from seed. I also didn’t expect that.

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Types of plants grown and stages of growth questions.

About 80% of people use organic methods such as fertilizers to grow their plants and a resounding 70% of people do not compost. I do not compost either, so why am I surprised? I don’t compost because I live in an apartment building with a mouse problem. But that’s probably not the case for the 7 people who took part 2 of the survey. So this begs the question, is composting the Growbooks a method in which people have the tools and time to partake in? And would they even want to? Composting is not straightforward. Sure you could put together an amalgamation of kitchen scraps, garden waste and cardboard with a tinge of urine to spread some microbial action, BUT it takes work to turn that waste into the balanced plant ambrosia rather than a bunch of mushy plant goop with microbes that died of a heatstroke. And people might not want to compost when it’s easier to take their waste to a landfill via a street side garbage can and a weekly dump truck pickup. In fact, the idea that the book could be composted might not be as appealing as I thought it would. People might want to do what they perceive as the right thing, but if it’s significantly easier to do the wrong thing with little to no consequence, then why not? So is domestic composting the right end-of-life cycle for a Growbook? At this point, I’m having a change of heart.

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Monthly plant budget and decisions that influence plant purchases

A few other questions really stood out to me, around 60% of the participants spend about $25-$50 a month on plants whereas another 50% only purchase plant growing products per year. Not as many people cared about non-GMO features when purchasing plants, in fact more cared about heirloom or organic varieties versus non-GMO. The most important feature influencing purchases was ease of growth (70%) and then price (50%). I also had about 50% of people purchase their plants/plant specific items from Home Depot. This might be a beneficial brick and mortar store for Growbooks.

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Rate of purchase and platforms used

Now onto part 3 of the survey. I chose the first three questions to focus on buzzwords concerning sustainability. How often do people purchase items with the words Sustainable, Green, Compostable, Recyclable, Biodegradable, 100% Natural and/or Chemical Free? Are they more inclined to purchase items with these words and how often do they fact check products that are marketed with such words? I’ve found a few papers online where “greenwashing” is being more thoroughly examined these day. In fact, greenwashing might hurt the sustainability product movement. As more products are being marketed as sustainable versus not actually being or having sustainable features/processes, consumers become more skeptical. I am very skeptical of these products. Why are companies false advertising? Well it’s a price markup. It’s similar to the problems with organic produce, if you can charge consumers more for a “premium feature,” then some companies or individuals may want to partake in this, but are not willing to implement the standards accordingly. Now you can use USDA organic certification to guarantee (to a point) organic produce. But this doesn’t get rid of USDA organic pending, organic, 100% natural and other false advertising buzzwords. And this is what’s happening with the sustainability market with certain platforms. So I’m getting off topic. But this is important in the sense of how sustainable does a company/product need to be to be considered purchasable by a consumer? Feels like a morally incorrect question, like how much can I get away with without it being illegal sort of notion or how much can I deceive the customer without compromising their trust?

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Buzzword questions

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Buzzword and spending questions

So the 16 answers I received aren’t binary. Only 25% of customers seem to be always inclined to purchase sustainable products with these buzzwords. About 81% of the participants sometimes purchase these products (should’ve put a number rather than an arbitrary spectrum). Over 50% do not fact check the “sustainability-ness” of their product. I’m not surprised, how can they do that? It’s harder than it seems. Especially when you’re looking into skin care items or the supply chain of your meat and food as in the Omnivores Dilemma. It’s not always clear and people don’t always have the time or care to really research these things. In fact, it might feel better to feel like you’re making a difference by purchasing these items because you tried, right? You could’ve gotten something without those words. And it might just feel better to stay in the dark, because you don’t want to feel bad about your purchases after the fact. That could be one of the many reasons why people don’t fact check these claims and should it really be their responsibility of consumers to fact check these items that are sometimes provided by major companies with millions in their marketing budget? We’d be assuming a lot about our customer’s access to information/education/time to research if that were the case. To be frank, I don’t know. These questions are spinning out of control. Anyways. Back. To. The. Survey…Here’s an interesting stat, almost 50% of participants are willing to spend more on a sustainable product versus its non-sustainable counterpart. How much more? I don’t know.

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Charity and end-of-life missions

Now there were some other interesting statistics that came out of this. For instance only 50% of people sometimes purchase a sustainable product if part of the proceeds are donated to charity. Furthermore, people sometimes care that a product has an end-of-life mission such as recycled, composted or biodegraded. This is important. People may not care about a product’s end-of-life mission compared to other sustainable aspects such as its supply chain or transparency. I’m really starting to wonder if a composted book will be better received than a recycled book or a book that can last for a hundred years? Now 62% of people knew the difference between biodegradable and compostable while almost 70% knew the difference between industrial composting and at-home composting. There’s a whole standard on this called ASTM 6400.

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Sustainably sourced materials, transparent supply chains

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Reduce carbon footprint and standards/certifications

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Certification Importance and Social Initiatives

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Product sectors

Now here are some important stats, what sectors of sustainability do people care most about when purchasing a sustainable product? It seems like the participants care most about sustainable certifications, if you have a sustainable product it should certified. Ok cool. The next two things the participants seem to care about are products that reduce their carbon footprint and have transparent supply chains. About 25% of participants think that sustainable products should always be 100% sourced. Now that’s not exactly how I wrote the question, but this is how I’m interpreting it. It doesn’t seem like a company that’s pursuing a social initiative is as important as the previous sectors. It’s also interesting to note that the 3 most popular standards/organizations for sustainable certifications were USDA Organic, Fair Trade Labeling and LEED. Cradle to Cradle, my personal favorite, was the fourth most popular organization. Another interesting thing is that the top products the participants purchase are in packaged food and beverages. The next three industries are apparel and textiles, personal care and toiletries and cleaning agents. Books and paper related media were in the 37%.

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Growbook example

Now my last survey section asked people what actual products on the market are they likely to purchase. I threw in a handful of mostly certified products as well as a board book produced by a book printing company that can be returned to the biological cycle or essentially be composted at its end-of-life. More on Gugler later. I priced the children’s board book at $15. About 18.8% of people were highly likely to purchase it whereas another 37.5% were somewhat likely. That’s pretty cool that there were any positive responses towards this product. I like to think that product slip-in was sneaky.

The biggest question I have to grapple with is should the books be domestically composted at its end-of-life? Is this better than recycling? What happens if we choose to industrially compost these books while offering free mailing envelopes for users to send the used books to our facilities? Could we reutilize these books somehow that’s different from composting and what would that look like (a library?)? People obviously care about sustainable products (or at least a majority of the survey participants do). There seems to be more positive than negative feedback (even though its indirect) on the Growbooks. I do think the end-of-life mission needs to be more thoroughly thought out. So I’m gonna think about it.

Author

smundon@bu.edu

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