Whom Do You Trust To Make Green Marketing Claims?

Deservedly or not, industry gets accused incessantly these days of greenwashing. That industry can't be trusted to make truthful green marketing claims and provide information that is credible, straightforward, and useful is not surprising for several reasons.

Industry has a long history of polluting the water, land, and air. The environment is intangible -- we can't see the fumes that don't come out of the power plant when we use a CFL. Plus, 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, Calif., in early June, representatives from EPA (creators of the Energy Star label for energy efficiency and the Design for Environment seal for cleaning products) UL (who recently announced its new 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 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 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), and retailers and manufacturers ended up on 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 merchant showing suggests that the many retailer eco programs may be misplaced - examples include the Home Depot's Eco-Options, Staples' 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 represent the most sustainable of the players given its longevity (115-years strong), reach around the world (especially in China and other countries where most products are manufactured), and formidable technical expertise. (Full 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 in a much-needed gap that has not been addressed by NGOs or the private sector to label critical industries such as organic food, energy and water-using products, and transportation. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is readying a bill that would empower the federal government to create a multi-attribute eco-label -- much in the spirit of the 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 -- and I recommend we all keep our finger on the pulse of this -- 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 submitted by such a small percentage of total). 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.

But at the end of the day, 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.

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