How Marketers Can Overcome Greenwashing For Consumers

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, September 23, 2015

Consumers are becoming increasingly more sophisticated in making environmentally friendly decisions, prompting marketers to devise ever more nuanced methods of “green communication.” The Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides have been revised only twice in the last 17 years, most recently in 2012, and these infrequent updates struggle to keep pace with marketing strategies that may give rise to consumer confusion and deceptive greenwashing by companies.

Consumers need specific information about the environmental impacts of their purchases to make informed green decisions. In our ongoing study of consumer habits, we examine how sustainability labels containing environmental impact scores on a 1-to-10 scale being shown on the shelf may affect consumer-purchasing decisions.

The scores were created based on a product information service aimed at consumers Good Guide. In a retail laboratory, the participants were invited to take part in a national pilot testing of “new” labels. We indicated that a retailer used these labels to determine whether it should implement a voluntary sustainability program, similar to Whole Foods’ Eco-Scale Rating System. We then placed laundry detergents with different index scores on a retail shelf and asked the participants to evaluate them.

 The results indicated that consumers were more likely to purchase laundry detergents with a higher index score, such as a 7, than laundry detergents with a lower index score, such as a 3. Consumers reacted more favorably to that specific high score than instances in which they were only told the product was sustainable. 

This highlights the importance of specificity in green marketing to avoid confusion and appeal to skeptical consumers.

Even when considering the potential effect of greenwashing, this pattern of was present for consumers with low levels of skepticism toward sustainability communication. Our research suggests that consumers with high levels of skepticism will be unlikely to be influenced by such labels, indicating a challenge to convert these consumer group to act in more environmentally friendly manner.

Consumers with low levels of skepticism evaluated the retailer to be more concerned about consumers’ well being and showed more favorable attitudes toward the retailer when the label was present across laundry detergents. 

Considering that a recent survey conducted by market researchers GfK found that more than 40% of consumers think green claims are misleading or inaccurate, nearly 60% of the consumer base will react positively to this sort of sustainability communication in the retail setting.

Our findings generally suggest that retailers can empower consumers to make better green choices by providing environmental impact scores on the shelf. The provision of labels will not be equally effective for all consumers, but at least a portion of consumers who are less skeptical of sustainability communication will be positively influenced and initiating a voluntary sustainability program to provide index scores can be rewarding to all parties, retailers and consumers, resulting in a true win-win situation.

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