While nearly one in four people say they consistently buy products they believe to be environmentally friendly, almost half (48%) think that "green" products are actually beneficial for the earth, while a distinctly smaller group-22%--understand that such purchases are simply less harmful than competing products, reports a new study from Cone LLC and the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship.
"The public has more confidence in their ability to understand the meaning of environmental advertising than they should have," says Mike Lawrence, EVP/corporate responsibility, Cone LLC, a cause-related marketing agency based in Boston. "And sooner or later, they'll find that out, and be really unhappy."
Consumers are pretty gullible. About 47% trust companies to tell the truth in environmental messages, and 45% believe companies accurately communicate information about their environmental impact.
With influentials already surfing the Web to get to the bottom of greenwashing claims, he says, and such countries as the UK and Norway cracking down on mainstream marketers that mislead shoppers, that backlash is probably much closer than large U.S. companies think. Predicts Lawrence: "Word will filter out about their products, and that will lead to embarrassment."
And while consumers give themselves a little more credit than they should for understanding the environmental terms marketers use (61% say they do), the majority also believe Americans need someone to make sure companies are telling the truth.
About 80% say that third-party certification, such as the Energy Star designation or Certified Organic label, is important. And 63% of those polled say these designations influence their purchases. About 78% say they believe that watchdog groups and the news media keep companies honest, 76% believe government regulation does, and 75% think corporate self-policing works.
To appeal to more sophisticated buyers, and to ward off a pending backlash for the masses as they wise up, Lawrence says there's plenty marketers can do to make their claims more relevant and believable.
For instance, about 70% say quantifying a product's environmental impact influences their decisions, and the more specific it is, the better. While 36% find a paper product labeled "environmentally friendly" credible, for example, 60% say that one marked as "made with 80% post-consumer recycled paper" is believable. In addition, 74% say they are more influenced by messages that link a product with a specific environmental result--for example, hybrid cars produce lower emissions.
On big issue, he says, is that marketers are learning that while puffery and big colorful exaggerations are a standard part of the advertisers' arsenal, they often fail in support of green claims: "You can't be aspirational in these ads. People want to know about actions, numbers, and statistics."
And perhaps the best news is that despite the deluge of green products and marketing claims, consumers aren't burning out. Only 14% say environmental messaging makes them either feel cynical or overwhelmed. About 38% say they feel informed by green marketing messages, and another 11% say they feel empowered or inspired.
"Everybody seems to wants more of this, not less," Lawrence says. "While there's long been this 10% or 15% who are sensitive, more people are alert than ever, and they want more information--including advertising. I don't think we are even close to the burnout point," he adds, "but we may be close to a period of disillusionment."
On April 30, the Federal Trade Commission has scheduled a workshop on "Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims," specifically looking at product labeling.