Anyone can make “green” claims, but what do we have to back them up?
It’s a great time to be a green manufacturer. Environmental consciousness continues to grow, not just here in the U.S. but globally. Consumers realize that there are more than a few reasons to purchase a green product. It may be good for the environment, but it’s also often perceived as good for their families and their communities’ wellbeing.
But for many manufacturers, figuring out how to correctly communicate the sustainable benefits of a product is still a challenge.
Social media is great for marketing, and promoting the products through ads and smart packaging works as well. But how does a manufacturer convince the new mom and dad that the toy hutch they’re looking at is safe from volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions, or the eco-conscious restaurant that the pot and pan detergent its considering is made from environmentally safe ingredients?
That’s the role of third-party validation systems, said Scot Case. Case serves as the director of Market Development for UL Environment, which provides validation processes for environmental claims. Environmental sustainability, he pointed out, “is a big, all-encompassing (issue) that touches on the human health, environmental and social impacts,” and these days consumers often want to know the fine print behind the claim before they will buy the product.
Environmental claim validation tells the consumer – whether he is a customer purchasing from a retail store or a manufacturer purchasing business-to-business – that the environmental statement you are promoting has been investigated and validated by a third party. And consumers often see that third-party process not only as a reassurance of the claim, but a reflection of the integrity of the manufacturer that has invested time and money to validate that claim.
“If you are a manufacturer and you are making some kind of environmental claim, you should be offering consumers proof that the claim is accurate, meaningful and relevant,” Case said.
Unfortunately, many manufacturers don’t. They rely on the power of their statement as assurance that their claim fits those three criteria, leaving it to consumers to determine whether a purchase is worth the investment. Increased vigilance by federal, state and municipal agencies in policing claims that don’t add up provide good support for consumers these days, but “greenwashing” still exists, and so does the consumer’s need to ask for proof. Providing UL Environment’s green-sticker validation, for example, that a play station is LEED certified and has low VOC emissions tells the parent immediately whether that product is worth considering for her child’s bedroom. Registering that building material as having been made with recycled materials reduces the legwork for the builder that markets his business as sustainably focused.
But there are other benefits to using environmental validation claims, Case said – benefits that go beyond what the customer sees on the shelf. In fact, customers aren’t the only ones that want to ensure that claims are accurate, meaningful and relevant. The government does as well.
Greenwashing and the FTC
“There have been a number of U.S. Federal Trade Commission investigations about the environmental claims companies are making.” Companies for example, that claimed their green products were compostable got into trouble for misleading advertising. Case said consumers misunderstood what the claim meant and, at the end of its lifecycle, threw it into the landfill. To them, “compostable” meant no worries, no muss; it will degrade.
“What the FTC has said is that you cannot make a general compostability claim unless it is very clear to the consumer that the product has to be segregated from the regular trash and must be shipped to … an institutional composter where the product will in fact, compost,” Case explained. Validating an environmental claim means manufacturers have accurate information at their fingertips about federal laws, expectations and procedures.
Case calls this process a “a magic secret sauce of accurate scientific claims, and understanding consumer perceptions” that is critical to business success. Manufacturers not only have to stay abreast of the requirements of certain claims, but also understand just what the consumer sees when he is looking at that green product.
With the technological advance of third-party validation systems, information can be tailored to be as specific as necessary. A manufacturer who has a new organic, environmentally sustainable personal care product in mind, for example, can find out whether the ingredients she wants to use will be permitted in California or in Canada, where consumer laws differ from say, Iowa. And the system also supports the retailer that is looking at purchasing the product to sell in his store.
Validation, transparency and doing it well
“[By] collecting, for example, the chemical formula for a shampoo, we can put all of that information into our transparency platform tools and let a retailer know if you can sell that product in Iowa, in California. Can you sell it in Europe; can you sell it in Japan? So, what we’re doing is making it easier for companies to understand what the rules are all over the world.”
Transparency in product manufacturing, Case says, not only makes it easier for the consumer to purchase confidently, but also strengthens the environmentally sustainable marketplace — making it easier for manufacturers, retailers and consumers to support a vibrant ecology.
“[It] is a wonderful time to be a green consumer,” Case noted. “And if you are an environmental leadership company, it’s a great time to try and be promoting that and really gain market share. Because ultimately, we really want to see the green guys win.”
More information about federal laws and definitions of green product marketing can be found at the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides website. Or for the less dry version, check out SinsofGreenwashing. To get a sense of how well you can identify “greenwashing” try UL’s informative game.