Certifications matter more than ever – and brands should be promoting them

by Sep 30, 2020

Shelton Stat of the Week

87% of Americans say green certifications are important when purchasing a product. So certifications can and should be used as a way to validate a brand’s green claims.

I’ve written quite a bit lately about how Americans are experiencing a “Maslow moment” right now. Concerns about the environment are taking a backseat to worries about basic needs – our health and our economy (at both the macro and personal level). But that doesn’t mean we’re not at all worried about the environment.

According to our latest polling of Americans in May, 43 percent of us are more concerned about climate change, 41 percent of us are more concerned about plastics in the ocean and 39 percent of us are more concerned about deforestation and environmental destruction than we were a year ago. While the percentage of Americans worried about these issues has gone down by a quarter to a third for the moment, the remaining 40 percent of us who are worrying about these issues are worrying more intensely.

So, what are we doing with that worry? At Shelton Group, we’ve seen for several years now that Americans are increasingly working to manage their environmental concerns via their purchases. About a quarter of Americans, in fact, can name a brand – unaided – that they’ve purchased or not purchased because of the environmental record of the manufacturer. Which begs the question: how do they know a product is green?

If we go back in time to 2014, the number one answer by far was, “I read the ingredients or details on the package.” So Americans have trusted their own knowledge base as a way to determine what details or storylines matter most – and they’ve trusted brands to be honest with them. Fast forward to 2020, and while “I read the package” is still the number one answer, it’s slipped a bit. And a significant number have lost confidence in their own ability to judge whether or not a product is green – 23 percent now say there’s no way to know. But one measure has gained traction that, in fact, is a way to know whether a product is green: third-party certifications.

This is worth unpacking further for brands:

  • Eighty-seven percent of Americans say green certifications are important when purchasing a product. So certifications can and should be used as a way to validate a brand’s green claims.
  • But it’s not just about influencing purchases; certifications build trust.
    • ENERGY STAR and USDA Organic are named as the best third-party certifiers in ensuring a product is green (though ENERGY STAR has slipped significantly from 2014) and, not surprisingly, they’re the two most trusted third-party certifiers, with 69 percent of Americans mostly-to-completely trusting ENERGY STAR and 46 percent mostly-to-completely trusting USDA Organic.
    • Also not surprisingly, awareness is closely linked to trust. Let’s look at the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), whose label indicates whether a product was sustainably sourced (and full disclosure, they are a Shelton Group client). Fifty-two percent of Americans have heard of the SFI label, and 90 percent of those people say they trust it. So awareness of the label can drive trust in the label and, by extension, the brand.
    • That’s the most important piece for brands: certifications on packaging/labels engender more trust than a brand’s advertising or press. And certifications backed by scientists would do ostensibly better, given that scientists are among the top three most trusted sources.

The moral of the story for brands is that you should use third-party certifications. and once you’re using them, you should promote them and leverage their trustworthiness to communicate your green product story. This starts on pack. Don’t just put the third-party certification logo on your package, tell the story of why it’s there. Back to our client SFI: we often see their logo on packaging accompanied by a sentence that sounds like it was written by the brand’s lawyers instead of a compelling message that communicates the value of forests in fighting climate change. Get the compelling message on your package to build both awareness and value in certifications which, in turn, will build value and believability in your sustainability story. (And if you’re an SFI user, reach out to them about this – we’ve crafted an entire toolkit of messages you can use on pack that we know will resonate with consumers.)

Now, don’t limit your efforts to packaging; communicate about your third-party certifications in your social and digital efforts. Ensure people know about each certification you use and tell the story about what they each mean and why you’ve partnered with them. It’ll buy your brand more trust – and your sustainability story more credibility – than simply running an ad talking about your sustainability efforts or a press release with your latest goal announcements.

In our current environment – where legitimate news organizations are branded as “fake news,” actual fake news is tough to spot, and Americans are in the streets and on social media demanding change from governments and companies – certifications can be a trusted, trustworthy “spokesperson” that brands, and Americans, can rely on.

News of the Week

Amazon will make it easier to buy sustainable products with new climate labelThe Verge

Amazon.com is implementing a new program to help consumers better understand brands’ efforts to reduce their carbon footprint. Called Climate Pledge Friendly, the program establishes 19 sustainability certifications, and a product can qualify for only one depending on its category, such as grocery, consumer electronics, fashion, and so on. “Climate Pledge Friendly is a simple way for customers to discover more sustainable products that help preserve the natural world,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said in a statement. “With 18 external certification programs and our own Compact by Design certification, we’re incentivizing selling partners to create sustainable products that help protect the planet for future generations.” Read more…


Why more brands are seeking out B Corp certificationsVogue Business

More brands are requesting B Corp certification, especially in the fashion industry, according to Vogue Business. B Corporation (or B Corp, where B stands for beneficial) certification is an approval granted to private for-profit companies by B Lab (a non-profit sustainability organization based in the U.S. with offices around the world) based on the applicant’s social and environmental performance. “The biggest benefits now are business-to-business more than business-to-consumer,” says James Bartle, founder of Outland Denim who certified in 2018 and whose denim is stocked by Nordstrom. “Retailers and buyers are looking for brands doing the right thing, and B Corp is a well-rounded certification that goes beyond our claims.” Read more…


Engaging Middle America In Recycling Solutions

Before COVID-19, 41% of Americans wanted to be seen as someone who buys green products, and many could cite an example of a brand they’d purchased (or not purchased) because of the environmental record of the manufacturer. Now, in the middle of the pandemic, the numbers have dropped dramatically. The big question is, what does this mean for engaging Americans in their number one green activity: recycling? Another question is, what does it mean for companies’ sustainability brand?

Our latest report answers these questions by digging into current consumer attitudes, how they impact consumer behavior, and how organizations should respond to ensure recycling – and other green behaviors – keep happening.

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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

1 Comment

  1. Geoff King

    Hi – is it possible to see a chart or raw data for the headline stat: 87% of Americans say green certifications are important when purchasing a product.

    I can see on the page that around 87% have ‘a little trust’ ‘mostly trust’ or ‘completely trust’ certifications on labels. But as trust isn’t the same as importance in purchasing, and certifications isn’t the same as green certifications, I’m assuming there are other data points (aligned with the ENERGY STAR and USDA organic data) that aren’t shown here. We’d reported the stat in a white paper, and I want to double-check the supporting data.

    Thanks in advance for your help

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