It costs more … that’s why

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One point to consider, though, is the economy: it's possible that, in economic hard times, environmental enthusiasm wanes as people face tougher financial problems.” –from a recent Harris Poll on the decline of “green behaviors” by American adults between 2009 and 2010

Here’s one for the “DUH” category: a survey conducted by the Harris Poll late last year discovered that American adults overall are now less likely than they were in the summer of 2009 to espouse certain "green" attitudes and engage in various environmentally-friendly activities.

And why might that be? Well, as you can see from the quote above, the good folks at Harris believe “economic hard times” might have something to do with it. We needed a national poll to figure this out?

[However, a caveat: when the economic calculations favor “green” initiatives, look out. And automobiles offer a prime example, as you can see below.]

Here are some of the “less green” results garnered by Harris’ poll of 2,352 U.S. adults ages 18 and over, surveyed online between November 8 and November 15 last year.

• Making an effort to use less water (60% 2009 vs. 57% 2010)

• Purchasing locally grown produce (39% 2009 vs. 33% 2010);

• Purchasing locally manufactured products (26% 2009 vs. 23% 2010)

• Purchasing organic products (17% 2009 vs. 15% 2010)

• Composting food and organic waste (17% 2009 vs. 15% 2010)

• Purchased Energy Star appliances (36% 2009 vs. 30% 2010)

• Donated or recycled electronics (41% 2009 vs. 32% 2010)

• Switched from bottled to tap water (29% 2009 vs. 23% 2010)

• Installed a low-flow showerhead or toilet (25% 2009 vs. 20% 2010)

• Purchased a hybrid or more fuel-efficient car (13% 2009 vs. 8% 2010)

Despite the aforementioned declines in Americans' attitudes and actions concerning environmental issues, however, Harris’ survey found that U.S. adults are now more likely to describe themselves as conservationist (20% 2010 vs. 17% 2009), "green" (18% 2010 vs. 13% 2009), and environmentalist (16% 2010 vs. 13% 2009) than they were previously.

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“It is difficult to draw conclusions from these paradoxical results: on the one hand, only minorities of U.S. adults – even fewer now than in 2009 – think or act green. On the other hand, though still only a minority, more adults than before now label themselves in environmental terms,” the company noted. “Only time will tell if Americans are just paying lip service to trendy buzz words like ‘green’ and ‘environmentalist,’ or if these are signs of a gradually expanding small but vocal ‘green movement.’”

Um … here’s a thought to consider: “greener” products – from recycled printer paper to hybrid vehicles – cost a lot more than their “non-green” counterparts (if such a descriptive exists).

A thick 500-sheet packet of 100% recycled printer paper costs some 20% to 25% more than a similar non-recycled sheaf (I know; I’ve bought the stuff).

The new Chevrolet Volt four-door electric hybrid sedan (equipped with a small gasoline motor for back-up power) lists at $41,000; even with the maximum of $7,500 in tax credits and incentives, it’s still a whopping $33,500. By comparison, I can buy a used Pontiac G6 all-gasoline powered sedan for $12,500 – saving myself some $21,000 in the process (not to mention a whole lotta interest, too).

Now, I'm not saying all of this to put a negative knock on “green” goods. Lord knows, over time, using recycled paper means cutting down fewer trees, while hybrids can significantly help reduce petroleum consumption by our country – something that brings both environmental and energy security benefits to us.

[Here's an example of what General Motors is trying to do in terms of combining economics and environmentalism when it coems to light truck design.]

It’s just that no one seems to truly “get it” about how the upfront cost of goods almost always drives the purchasing decision. What, do you think Wal-Mart became a global retailing behemoth because people like linoleum flooring in their massive stores? No! It’s because the consumer’s dollar buys a heck of a lot more at a Wal-Mart.

Think Toyota and Honda got where they were because they made fuel-efficient cars? No! Their cars were fuel efficient, reliable, and inexpensive. That’s a hard combination to beat. Nowadays, of course, a Honda commands a premium (I know that from looking at minivan prices, let me tell you), as do Apple’s products and gaming systems (like PlayStation), but those are rarities.

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Trucking, of course, offers the ultimate example. By federal law, diesel-powered trucks – from pickups to Class 8 tractors – are now equipped with costly emission control systems, and that’s still giving a lot of buyers pause across the work truck spectrum.

Take General Motors: you’ve got to add $8,395 to the base cost of its new Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups to get the Duramax diesel engine and Allison 1000 six-speed transmission package – a price tag largely due to 2010 emission requirements.

On the heavy end, Keith Klein, executive VP and COO of Transport America, told me last year that the base price of the Class 8 tractors used in his company’s fleet has increased $25,000 over the last six to seven years – again, largely due to new emission control systems mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

As a result of such costs – and the Great Recession, let’s not forget – fleets are keeping their tractors far longer than ever before. Right now, the average age of Class 8 trucks is now 6.5 years – this highest level in nearly three decades – and many fleets say they’ll be keeping equipment longer in the future simply because they need more revenue-generating time to pay for it. One flatbed carrier I spoke with has gone from a trade cycle of three years to over five years for that reason alone.

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The higher price of newer, cleaner trucks has also caused a run (of sorts) in the used equipment market. Steve Clough, president of national used tuck dealer Arrow Truck Sales, told me last year that he foresees a used truck shortage for the next three or four years as the production of new trucks dropped to record low levels from 2007 through 2009, while fleets that typically bought new trucks went into the used market to buy large groups of low mileage, late model trucks – usually in large lots of 100 power units or more.

“Right now, there’s almost no supply of 200,000 to 300,000 mile trucks to be had in large numbers,” he said. “There’s not even a real oversupply of 400,000 mile trucks – and those are what fleet retail buyers are looking for.”

And despite the higher maintenance cost for older trucks – with one fleet telling me its maintenance expenses double between the 400,000 mile and 600,000 mile mark – their significantly lower sticker price in recent years still attracted a ton of buyers, despite being the “less greener” option.

That’s why upfront cost is going to remain a big issue dogging efforts to “green” America for some time to come.

What's Trucks at Work?

Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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