Six alternatives to 'eco-label' marketing

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By: Wise Marketer Staff |

Posted on August 11, 2009

Six alternatives to 'eco-label' marketing

With companies increasingly hoping to jump on the 'green bandwagon' by creating and marketing state-of-the-green-art products and services, many are making the mistake of following the eco-labelling path when they don't actually need to, according to Jacquelyn Ottman and Sarah McGrath of J. Ottman Consulting.

Would-be green marketers always want consumers to believe that the product really is as green as they claim it is, so the natural tendency is to employ some kind of recognised, credible eco-labelling.

But Ottman argues that, unless it is required by certain retailers or other users of the product, there are plenty of viable alternatives (as well as complements) to third party certification, no matter how trusted or well-known the chosen third party is among even the greenest of consumers.

An eco-label is granted by a third party to certify the greenness of either some aspect of a product (a 'single attribute label') or of the product's entire life cycle (a 'multi-attribute label'). These labels are generally issued by a government (e.g. the US EPA's Energy Star or the USDA's Organic label), by environmental groups (e.g. FSC), by non-government organisations (e.g. UL or GreenGuard), or by trade associations (e.g. USGBC, the creators of the LEED programme).

It is worth noting that eco-labeling can be very useful to the marketer. In a 2007 BBMG poll found that 50% of consumers would believe that a green claim that is accompanied by an eco-label.

However, there are still some credibility issues for the other 50% of consumers. For example, the Energy Star label is free of charge (although testing is required), while others can be very expensive to earn. There are currently 299 eco-labels available to brands, but very few are yet widely recognised or associated with documentable purchase influence.

In the US at least, Energy Star, USDA Organic, and FSC Certified are the most widely recognised eco-labels, while marketers using the other 296 will need to embark on massive programmes of consumer education to help shoppers understand their real meaning. At the same time, space on a product packaging is often very limited, and may more usefully display other more important messages.

The final problem is that even today, amid a positive "green revolution", an appropriate eco-label may not yet exist for every product category. For example, a shoe seller wanting to certify a greener range of footwear is probably not going to find a meaningful eco-label.

So what are the viable alternatives to using third party eco-labels? According to Ottman, there are several ways that green brand marketers can replace or even complement eco-labels, such as:

  1. Follow the FTC Green Guides The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued Green Guides that, if followed, will ensure that you provide clear and credible communication for almost any green marketing claim. The guides are already being updated to reflect terms that are new to the 'sustainable branding' vernacular (such as 'carbon offsets', 'renewable', and 'sustainable') so keep watch for new definitions as they appear.  
  2. Use your brand's own good name Companies that have a good reputation don't use eco-labels because they don't need to. Their product offerings and corporate reputations speak for themselves.  
  3. Endorsements Get a respected environmental organisation to endorse your product (such as Sierra Club's endorsement of Clorox's GreenWorks line of cleaning products in the US).  
  4. Transparency When companies voluntarily disclose their ingredients, it shows that they have nothing to hide and trust is established. For example, Tom's of Maine lists all the ingredients on the side of its toothpaste cartons, including the source, and even an explanation of why each ingredient is needed. And SC Johnson's Green List actively discloses the ingredients used in its products and classifies those ingredients according to their impact on the environment and human health. Many green web sites (such as GoodGuide) rate consumer products, offering marketers a good opportunity for ingredient disclosure and a chance to show up competitors who aren't so open.  
  5. Use any awards you have won If your company or product has been recognised by the industry, by a government, or by any other recognised group for its environmental achievements, let consumers know about it. For example, the Toyota Prius has never been certified with an eco-label. Instead Toyota ran adverts saying that their new offering had been "honoured by the United Nations, the Sierra Club, and the National Wildlife Federation". Toyota has also actively advertised accolades such as Motor Trend's Car of the Year 2004 and JD Power and Associates' Most Dependable Compact Car 2008 and 2009.  
  6. Self-declaration Representing a growing trend in the electronics industry (and used to complement Energy Star and EPEAT certifications), many companies have developed their own programmes to highlight the greenness of their products, such as HP's Eco Highlights, Samsung's Eco-mark, and Panasonic's Eco Ideas.

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