Deservedly or not, industry these days is accused incessantly of greenwashing—"the practice of companies disingenuously spinning their products and policies as environmentally friendly, such as by presenting cost cuts as reductions in use of resources...a deceptive use of green PR or green marketing." (Wikipedia entry)
It's not surprising that industry isn't trusted to make truthful green marketing claims and provide information that is credible, straightforward, and useful.
Why? There are several reasons—not least the following:
- Industry has a long history of polluting the water, land, and air.
- The environmental benefit is often intangible—we can't see the fumes that don't come out of the power plant when we use a compact fluorescent lamp (CFL).
- The science of making claims is imprecise; for instance, packages may be recyclable in theory but not in practicality.
- And consumers don't know a lot about environmental issues. So it's easy for manufacturers to play on consumers' good intentions to recycle and cut down on waste.
So how do we restore trust in industry's green marketing claims and eco-labels? Can industry get its act together and bolster its credibility on its own? Or does it need help from other groups?
Several candidates offer different levels of credibility and suitability: 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; Good Housekeeping just launched a green version of its well-known seal; and, of course, there's Consumer Reports.
At the Sustainable Brands '09 conference in Monterey, California, in early June, representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA—creators of the Energy Star label for energy efficiency and the Design for Environment seal for cleaning products), UL (which recently launched its environmental-claims-certification service), and Air Quality Systems' GreenGuard (indoor-air-quality certifiers) met for my annual panel on eco-labeling.
The speakers presented their programs, put forth data supporting their own credibility, and left it to the 350 participants at this sustainable-branding and green-marketing summit to decide whom they could trust to make green marketing claims, and why.
The Participants Weigh in
We specifically asked participants at the Sustainable Brands '09 conference 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 could be divided into three categories:
- NGOs and environmental groups came out squarely on top (with NGOs a bit in the lead)
- The federal government settled somewhere in the middle (a little surprising to me, quite frankly)
- Retailers and manufacturers ended up at the bottom of the pile.
That retailers scored so poorly makes sense given what may be construed as a conflict of interest between green and sales: What retailer wouldn't want to label every product on its shelves with an eco-label to make it sell faster? Such a poor showing by merchants suggests that the many retailer eco programs may be misplaced—such as Home Depot's Eco-Options, Staples's EcoEasy, and Office Depot's Green Depot.
If our informal poll is correct, the future of eco-labeling and claims certification belongs to players like UL and GreenGuard—i.e., independent third-party certifiers with a stake in ensuring transparency and credibility.
UL, in particular, may be the most sustainable of the players given its longevity (115 years), reach around the world (especially in China and other countries where most products are manufactured), and formidable technical expertise. (Disclosure: UL is a client of ours.)
Despite surprisingly middling credibility in our poll—perhaps tracing to controversy over the USDA organic label—the federal government is filling a much-needed gap not addressed by NGOs or the private sector: the labeling of critical industries such as organic food, energy and water-using products, and transportation.
Senator Dianne Feinstein of California is readying a bill that would empower the federal government to create a multi-attribute eco-label—similar to eco-labels generated by 25-plus other countries around the world.
The Power of the Write-In Vote
What surprised me most about the poll is the write-in vote. It's easy to check a box or circle a number on a questionnaire, but it's much tougher to write in a remark (that's why businesses pay so much attention to consumer letters even though they are submitted by such a small percentage).
As we compiled the results, we noticed that questionnaire after questionnaire included "trusted friends" or "informed peers" among the "Others" that conference participants would give high-credibility marks to—perhaps more so than formal groups. This suggests to me that eco-labelers will likely proliferate in the future, and that awareness for eco-labels will no doubt grow.
In short, the most potent source of credibility and purchase influence may exist just over consumers' garden fences and cubby walls. The increased transparency that consumers are demanding these days—evidenced in ingredient disclosure and even access to the very farmers growing one's potatoes—will only fuel this trend.
In the end, the power may rest with the people.