As consumers increasingly vote with their wallets for sustainable goods and groceries, producers are doing more to signal the eco-friendliness of their wares. But amid the many different certification logos, package designs and environmental claims, experts warn that all that glitters is not green.
The glut of sustainability claims presents challenges both for consumers looking to “buy green” and green companies trying to stand out from the fray.
One of the problems with certification systems is that there is simply too many of them, experts say.
“Once you have too many different logos and certifications hinting at the same thing, it waters down the method,” said Fleur Gadd of Big Picture UK, a marketing firm that is conducting a study of consumer response to sustainability claims.
Another issue is that many certification claims are not sufficiently transparent, according Anastasia O’Rourke, whose company Big Room curates a list of more than 400 eco-certification labels. She says there are thousands of labels and certifications for consumer products, ranging from the spurious to those that attest to the toughest standards.
Energy Star, a certification program initiated by the U.S. Environmental Protection agency, for instance, is perhaps the most ubiquitous on the North American market. The certification, which attests to low energy use in household appliances, certifies some 63,000 different household machines.
“Americans, with the help of Energy Star, saved enough energy in 2010 alone to avoid greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those from 33 million cars — all while saving nearly $18 billion on their utility bills,” the program claims on its Web site.
Any summer trip to the United States, though, will remind you that no air-conditioner is as low-energy as not using one. And air-conditioning is practically considered a right, hence Americans’ outsize share of global energy consumption. But at least the Energy Star label allows consumers to make an informed choice and choose the more “energy efficient” model.
An example of a less useful certification system is one that boldly proclaims a product to be CFC-free (if the acronym looks familiar, it is because chlorofluorocarbons’ contribution to ozone layer depletion were a major topic of discussion in the 1980s). The problem with this claim — and therefore the colorful label that producers stick onto their products — is not its veracity, but the fact that CFC has been banned for decades already.
UL TerraChoice, a Canadian marketing agency, released a study on the failings of eco-labeling some years ago. The report is entitled the Six Sins of Greenwashing.
Researchers at Big Picture found that when people shop for coffee and tea, certification can matter a lot. Fairtrade, one of the oldest and most venerable systems, certifies that local producers in the developing world are not exploited. It is among a few certifications clearly trusted by the consumer.
“It is easier with products where consumers are aware of the sourcing,” Ms. Gadd said.
Of course, the label does not certify that a product is made in a sustainable way, though it does attest that the product or produce is more equitably produced. Ms. Gadd said Fairtrade coffee and tea were exceptions, in that most people know the problems associated with commercial large-scale production and trust just a few certification programs to tell them what products to buy.
It is notoriously difficult to measure how many consumers buy green goods, in part because “sustainability” or “eco-friendly” are hard to define. The Big Picture study found that about 8 percent to 10 percent of British consumers they queried were “ethical elites,” consumers who are aware of environmental problems as well as their power as consumers to choose the right product.
Besides certification systems, the Big Picture study also looks at packaging and design, which can be effective ways to suggest that a product is green even if this isn’t really the case.
Their findings indicate that most consumers rely on emotive responses when choosing, say, laundry-detergent, a product whose environmental impact and sourcing is generally not well understood.
Clear and simple packaging can signal sustainability more easily than extensive claims, again whether those implications actually reflect the product or not.
The eco-friendly detergent Attitude signals its sustainability with a white bottle and images of animals (it also backs the claims with real certification). Researchers found that consumers responded to the simple message: buying this soap will help save these animals, ostensibly by keeping their water clean of chemicals from washing-machine effluent.
“Some brands can ‘seem’ more sustainable than they are by applying the ‘sustainable’ basics. In addition, consumers rarely read packs, and thus when shopping in autopilot, many are unlikely to interrogate a brand’s credentials (the small print!) closely. In that sense, if the packaging signals ‘sustainability’, this may well be the consumer’s lasting impression of the brand.”
When buying eco-friendly products, do you insist on eco-certification? Do you think you are ever swayed by packaging design? How do you find the sustainable products and producers you can trust?