Is green jargon a dealbreaker for consumers?

How do Americans feel about the green buzzwords you use? We’ve got the scoop.

When it comes to selling products with an environmental benefit – or telling your corporate sustainability story well – words really do matter.

Here at Shelton Group, we just completed our eighth annual Eco Pulse™ study of American consumers, and this year, we’re offering a free special report that explores a topic critical to your communications strategy: the effectiveness of green jargon.

We’ve been in the energy and environmental marketing business a long time – long enough to witness a sea change in the way people perceive all things green and sustainable, including the language we marketers use to sell green and sustainable things to the public.

That’s why, as part of this year’s Eco Pulse, we decided to take the American pulse when it comes to green buzzwords, to find out whether they really have mainstream appeal, whether consumers really get what they mean and whether some of them actually turn consumers off. The result is our Eco Pulse 2015 special report, The Buzz on Buzzwords.

We tested both general terms and jargon related to specific products and initiatives with an eye toward what marketers need to know to sell their products and tell their corporate sustainability stories. We wanted to find out: do these terms really reach a mass audience? Do they carry political baggage? Do consumers understand their meaning – and most important of all, do the words stir up positive or negative feelings? Do people associate them with increased expense or better health? Are any of them a total turnoff?

Here’s the full list of words we tested:

  • Green
  • Eco-friendly
  • Sustainable
  • Recyclable
  • Recycled
  • Renewable
  • Compostable
  • Biodegradable
  • Low carbon footprint
  • Net zero
  • Low-VOC

We asked respondents to rate their instant reactions to the words, and then we tested their actual knowledge of the concepts. Download the report to see the full results, but in the meantime, here’s a sample of what stood out to us:

  • It’s not whether consumers get it – it’s whether they think they get it. If they thought they understood a term, then they gave it positive ratings. This often had very little to do with whether they actually understood the concept.
  • Consumers confuse “recycled” and “recyclable,” and they don’t have a clue about the term “post-consumer,” but they adore the idea of recycling. The word “recycle” gives a product a green halo – which is great, unless the product doesn’t really deserve it. (Consumers may have unrealistically high expectations, in fact, for products that carry a recycling-related claim.)
  • You may turn customers off completely by using jargon, even if they want what you’re selling. “Low-VOC,” for example, was a real stinker in terms of consumer desirability – a majority actually gave it a negative rating – but when we asked respondents how they felt about indoor air quality, we got a completely different picture.
  • Certain terms had mass appeal for a majority of consumers, but it’s important to take a closer look if you’re trying to persuade a particular target audience to take action. When we applied our proprietary consumer segmentation model to the results, it was easy to see that the terms meant different things to different groups.

There’s tons more in the special report, including a breakdown of differences by demographic for each term we tested. It has a lot of good insight, so don’t wait – download!


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Posted on

August 24, 2015

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. Kristan

    I would love to see this report but it shows error 404 when I click your link.

  2. John Salisbury

    So sorry, we no longer have the original 2015 report on the site but we have updated the link to a more recent report.

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