Claiming widespread consumer confusion -- even among its green-elite shoppers -- Whole Foods Markets says it is introducing Eco-Scale Rating System, a tiered standard for household cleaners that will make it easier for customers to understand which products are best for the environment.
The Austin, Tex.-based retailer, which says it is the first national retailer to launch such a ranking for cleaners, is assigning a color ranking of green, yellow, orange and red to products it evaluates. In order to be sold at Whole Foods, a product must at least rate an orange. Red-rated products will no longer be sold there. In addition to ranking its own private-label brands, it is also evaluating such brands as Method, Better for Life, Ecover, and Greenshield. So far, 34 products have been rated.
Outside experts say such efforts have real appeal.
"Consumers are getting more and more skeptical of product claims, and so third-party seals carry more weight," Cara Welch, Ph.D., VP/ scientific and regulatory affairs for the Natural Products Association, Washington D.C., tells Marketing Daily. "The Whole Foods standards have in general a pretty good reputation for clarifying complex issues."
The move comes in the midst of ever-growing consumer confusion about which products are better for the planet. One key issue that Whole Foods is requiring is that products list every ingredient they contain on their labels. The retailer says its research finds that 73% of adults falsely believe the government requires such disclosures, and that 64% think many household cleaning brands already disclose ingredients on product labels -- when, in fact, few provide this information. And 66% believe some of these ingredients are harmful.
"Shoppers have a right to know what's actually in the products they use to clean their homes," says the company in its press release describing the new system. "We've always carefully monitored ingredients. Now, with Eco-Scale, we're able to help shoppers buy eco-friendly products with confidence and provide safer alternatives for their households and for the planet as a whole."
Whole Foods already has a system in place for ranking health and beauty products, and recently intensified its commitment to sustainability labeling in seafood.
Still, adds Welch, as third-party rankings proliferate, there is a potential for more confusion. With too many stickers for consumers to compute, she says, "We're going to look like Nascar."