Green? Prove It.

Consumers are confused and skeptical about environmental claims.

A recent study by Retrevo, a leading consumer electronics information web site, found that only 13% of respondents believe electronics manufacturers' green claims.

That dismally low number for may reflect the fact that it's hard to imagine an eco-friendly 50-inch plasma screen.

Claims of environmental compatibility by companies in other industries fare better. In a broadly-based study by the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship, 47% of respondents found companies' eco-friendly claims believable.

But even that overall 47% credibility factor for environmental claims is below the norms for advertising in general.

A study by University of Miami professor Don W. Stacks and marketing communications researcher David Michaelson found that 78% of respondents believe the claims in newspaper ads. Online claims are believed by 64%. Only radio, the least-credible medium studied with a 46% credibility rating, matched the low believability levels of environmental claims.

So why don't consumers give as much credence to environmental claims as they do to claims about the digestive efficacy of Activia, the low prices at Walmart or the stain-fighting power of new Tide Total Care?

Two reasons: confusion and skepticism.


Most consumers don't even know the meaning of terms used in environmental marketing communications. Even those self-described as green. For example, the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship study found that 48% of folks who call themselves green think earth-friendly products actually benefit the environment. Only 22% know that these products simply do less damage.

The most widely-acclaimed source of environmental information since Rachael Carson's Silent Spring was published in 1962 was Al Gore's book-cum-movie An Inconvenient Truth. The effort won Gore a Nobel Prize, but only 18% of American consumers read the book or saw the movie according to Yankelovich's "Going Green" survey.

More confusion? In BBMG's Conscious Consumer Report 23% of respondents say they have no way of knowing if a product is green or actually does what it claims. In fact, 7% named Walmart as the company that's most socially or environmentally responsible and 9% named them as the least responsible.

Joel Makower's "Whatever Happened to Green Consumers?" posting on cites complexity as an important contributing factor to creating confusion about environmental claims. "Shopping with Mother Earth in mind is no mean feat, even for the most savvy of shoppers. After all, understanding the environmental implications of something as simple as paper versus plastic shopping bags requires digesting a fair amount of science, some of which is inconclusive, contradictory or simply arguable. Both, after all, come from limited, declining resources, can be made from recycled material and can be recycled. Which is better? Even scientists don't agree." He goes on to point out that most consumers never even consider the possibility of reusable cotton bags, which are clearly the most environmentally compatible way to haul groceries home.


A lot of early eco-friendly claims were ridiculous – and obviously untrue. Remember biodegradable trash bags and ozone-friendly aerosols? Most consumers probably can't recall the specifics of those bald-faced frauds, but they do remember that environmental claims were exposed as shams. That predisposes those consumers to believe that other environmental compatibility claims are phonies, too.

That tradition of hyperbole – or outright prevarication – in green claims continues. In 2007 TerraChoice examined 1,753 environmental product claims and found that all but one were overstated, misleading or simply false.

Skepticism is also triggered by vague eco-friendly claims and smoke-and-mirrors misleading truths rather than outright misrepresentation. A recent study by The Sage Group found that "Consumers consider the authenticity and integrity of environmental claims to be essential, and they recognize greenwashing." The insecticide that touts "No CFCs" doesn't get much credence among environmentally-aware consumers who know that those compounds have been banned in the U.S. for years.

One result? Reticence.

Many companies avoid communicating about their environmental responsibility. In a January/February 2009 Fleischman-Hilliard study, more than half the marketing and PR professionals at companies which are increasing their sustainability initiatives don't plan to advertise or publicize the new efforts.

Part of that reticence about corporate environmental responsibility is due to marketers' awareness that consumers believe eco-friendly products have higher prices and/or lower quality than conventional products. According to Advertising Age,"...a vast majority of consumers said they believe green products cost more and don't perform as well as others."

A GfK Roper study found that 61% of Americans believe green goods perform worse than conventional items. That's a strong deterrent to communicating a products' environmental benefits.

The fear of overstating a green claim and being outed is also a barrier to capitalizing on companies' sustainability/eco-friendliness. And that's happening with increasing frequency.

  • Consumers regularly expose real or imagined transgressions on blogs and social media.

  • In 2007, complaints about misleading environmental claims to Britain's Advertising Standards Authority increased by 400%.

  • Just last week the FTC charged K-Mart with making "false and unsubstantiated claims" that it's American Fare paper plates are biodegradable. Actually, the plates are biodegradable in a compost heap. But not in the anaerobic confines of a landfill, where most paper plates end up. So K-Mart got slammed for greenwashing although their claim was technically correct.

That kind of scrutiny and exposure is a strong incentive for keeping mum about green claims to avoid inadvertently stepping over the line.

Who (and what) do consumers believe?

The BBMG Conscious Consumer Study found that consumers base their judgments on products' environmental compatibility on three main factors:

  • Consumer reports (in the generic sense, not just the magazine of that name.

  • Certification seals or labels (such as Energy Star)

  • Lists of ingredients on products

According to Yahoo's Green Study, trusted sources of environmental information are:

  • 72% traditional media reportage (unspecified, but we suspect primarily print)
  • 51% portal websites
  • 47% TV ads
  • 44% search
  • 40% online user reviews
  • 24% professional reviews
  • 20% company blogs and websites
Except for TV ads, credibility seems to be the almost exclusive domain of third parties. Only one in four or one in five consumers believe professional reviewers or company blogs and websites.

There is one proven way for companies to enhance the credibility of their environmental claims without third-party endorsements: be specific. Use data rather than generalities. The Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship study found that 36% of environmentally-motivated shoppers would believe a paper product's claim of being "environmentally friendly," but 60% would believe a claim that the product is "made with 80% post-consumer recycled paper."

How to use environmental claims effectively

Whether or not to use an environmental appeal as the principal marketing communications message for a brand is an important strategic decision. We wouldn't presume to suggest whether or not it's the right direction to pursue without some digging and study of strategy. If you've done that digging and have decided that capturing a fanatically devoted 10% to 13% of the consumer marketplace would benefit your brand, here are some basic principles to apply:

  • Be honest. Actually, be more than literally honest. Don't use hyperbole, weasel words or preemptive claims of parity features.
  • Use any credible seal of approval you can get. An Energy Star rating, a Certified Organic seal or another reasonably believable imprimatur from a respected third-party organization.
  • Engage environmentally-conscious consumers with social media. There's going to be conversation about your brand. Be part of it. And be upfront about who you are.
  • Track your brand on social media and blogs.
  • Use traditional media. Newspaper has great credibility and TV ads are the third most trusted source of environmental information about brands.
  • Use public relations. Third-party stories and articles about your brand are almost always more effective than what you say about yourself.
  • Be specific. Use data to substantiate your claims.
  • Walk the walk. It seems obvious, but print your brochure with soy-based inks on post-consumer recycled paper. Your press conference should be illuminated with LED bulbs, or perhaps conducted online to eliminate the environmental cost of travel. If your headquarters is in the Southwest, make sure the CEO's boots aren't made from an endangered species.

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