Industry in general is being increasingly accused by consumers of 'greenwashing' - the practice of making unfounded or misleading claims about the natural or environmentally friendly nature of products and services, according to green marketing expert Jacquelyn Ottman. But who will consumers really trust for their green information, and how can marketers tap into this growing consumer concern?
The idea that industry can't be trusted to make truthful green marketing claims and provide information that is credible, straightforward, and useful is perhaps not surprising for several reasons: industry has a long history of polluting waterways, land, and air; and the environment is intangible, so consumers can't directly see the effect of green manufacturing efforts; and the science of green claims is imprecise at best, with recyclable packaging and products being great in theory but problematic in practice.
At the same time, most consumers don't actually know a great deal about environmental issues, so it's easy for manufacturers to play on consumers' good intentions to recycle and cut down on waste.
So how can marketers help to restore consumers' trust in green marketing claims and eco-labels? Can industry every bolster up its green credibility on its own, or is there a need for outside help? For example, several external groups and organisations offer varying levels of credibility. NGOs, environmental groups, and government are obvious choices. Product safety giant Underwriters Laboratories (UL), for example, has over 100 years of credibility vouching for the safety of electrical products, and Good Housekeeping has recently launched a green version of its well-known seal.
At the Sustainable Brands '09 conference in California earlier this month, representatives from the EPA (creators of the Energy Star label for energy efficiency and the Design for Environment seal for cleaning products), UL, and Air Quality Systems' GreenGuard met for a panel on eco-labeling. The speakers presented their programmes, put forth data supporting their own credibility, and left it to the 350 delegates to decide who they could trust to make green marketing claims, and why.
Delegates were specifically asked to rate the following five groups on a scale of 1 (most trustworthy) to 6 (least trustworthy): environmental groups, NGOs and other third parties, retailers, the federal government, manufacturers, and others.
In a nutshell, the results divided into three categories:
- NGOs and environmental groups came out on top (with NGOs beign a bit in the lead);
- the federal government, somewhere in the middle;
- Retailers and manufacturers, at the bottom end of the trust scale.
The fact that retailers scored so poorly actually makes sense, given what may be seen as a conflict of interest between 'going green' and increasing sales. It is undoubtedly true that an eco-label can make certain products sell more quickly. So, a poor retail score here suggests that the many retailer-driven 'eco programmes' may be misplaced.
And, if this informal poll was truly representative of most consumers' opinions, the future of eco-labeling and claims certification would belong to players such as UL and GreenGuard - the independent third-party certifiers that have a stake in ensuring both transparency and credibility.
Despite surprisingly average credibility levels (perhaps due to recent controversy over the USDA organic label) the US federal government is still filling in a much-needed gap that has not yet been addressed by NGOs or the private sector, to label critical industries such as organic food, energy and water-using products, as well as transportation.
But, according to the poll, the most potent source of credibility and purchase influence may be over consumers' garden fences and office cubicle partitions. The increased transparency that consumers are demanding these days will surely fuel this trend - as evidenced by greater food ingredient disclosure and even having access to the farmers who grow the very potatoes you buy in the supermarket. In the end, the power may well rest with the people.