By Megan K. Scott
NEW YORK (AP) — When it comes to going green, Kristen Chase does what she can: recycling, using her own grocery bags, buying organic produce and conserving energy and water.
But the 32-year-old mom of three doesn't drive a hybrid, have solar panels on the house or furniture made from recyclable materials. Not in this economy.
"Our thing is we want to make green changes because we love the earth," said Chase, of Atlanta. "But at the same time, we don't want to stress ourselves out about it. We're living on a budget and we can't go overboard."
Not many people can these days. With many Americans curtailing their spending, the multibillion dollar green products market, which has seen rapid growth over the past few years, is expected to lose momentum, analysts say.
While people are still willing to make small, cheaper changes, many are shying away from big purchases. Hybrid car sales, for example, are down almost 30 percent from a year ago, according to HybridCars.com, a consumer information Web site.
It's unclear just how much the general decline in consumer spending will affect the green movement, since eco-friendly products tend to be more expensive. Surveys show most people are willing to pay more for eco-friendly products, but a smaller number actually do, said Michael Solomon, a professor of marketing and director of the Center for Consumer Research at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia.
"I think people do vote with their pocketbooks," said Solomon. "Right now, that is the No. 1 priority for most Americans, for most people around the world."
Many people seem to be focusing on smaller changes, such as buying local or driving less. Some are giving up pricier brands as cheaper options become available.
Wendy Brooks, 36, a mom of two in Phoenix, cleans with vinegar and washes clothes with Purex Free & Clear, cheaper than using eco-friendly Seventh Generation products. She also purchases rBGH-free milk as opposed to the more expensive organic milk. She eats organic produce and skips meat three times a week.
Jennifer Brooks, 40, a mom of three in Cherry Hill, N.J., makes sure the kids turn the lights off and is fanatic about recycling, even the disposable water bottles that she feels bad about using.
"We just try and do our part within reason," she said.
Still, the Organic Trade Association forecasts nonfood organic product sales to grow through 2010, in part because of increasing consumer awareness and wider availability, said spokeswoman Laura Batcha.
Research firm Mintel is less optimistic. In a January report, the group said it was unlikely that customers will develop new, ethical shopping patterns in a period of economic crisis and predicted organic clothing may be one of the first green segments to suffer.
Slowed growth is also expected for natural food, beauty and cleaning products, according to the market research firm IBISWorld.
"These products can be considered a luxury," said Toon van Beeck, industry analyst for the firm. "They are more expensive compared to other products on the shelves. Consumers are tightening their belts in today's environment."
To be sure, going green does not always require spending money and can even save money in the long run, like using Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs or Energy Star appliances.
Over the years though, the market has spawned a plethora of green products, whether it's HP's energy-efficient desktop PCs or organic cotton diapers. February's Green Products Expo in New York City featured more than 100 new products, including pens made from recycled materials, tall kitchen bags produced from recycled plastic and a home soda maker to eliminate bottles and cans.
Many of these products were in the pipeline long before the recession, Solomon said. But they are coming out "at the worst time you can imagine," he said.
Despite the economic challenges, the green movement is not going to fall, though some new products from startup companies won't make it through the recession, said Solomon.
And for some people, it's the little things that matter.
Phil Shapiro, 48, of Takoma Park, Md., recycles, walks to his job at the library, wraps presents in newspapers, and gives nonmaterial gifts. He also stopped giving handouts in a class that he was teaching last semester.
"It can't be too burdensome," said Shapiro, referring to going green. "I can't afford to buy organic vegetables. I would if my pay was higher. I'm involved in something green if it's not overly expensive and if I think it's a sensible move for me and others."
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By Megan K. Scott