We hear an awful lot of frustrated, skeptical feedback in our consumer research on green issues. Most of this frustration stems from an inability to evaluate green claims. Consumers think that standards for the use of terms like “environmentally friendly”, “natural”, “sustainable” and “organic” are generally nonexistent, and there’s a strong buyer-beware mentality out there. Most aren’t aware of the USDA’s organic standards and they have no clue that the FTC has actually issued “Green Guides” for the use of many of these terms. (This is probably because the FTC has brought NO cases involving environmental marketing claims covered in the Green Guides since 2000.)
Consumers are also incredibly unfamiliar with the third-party certification resources that many companies currently use and show little-to-no recall in focus groups for these labels. These are a few representative quotes from our recent Eco Pulse focus groups, held in Los Angeles and St. Louis:
- “I don’t believe half the green stuff I see. Is there any policing body, regulator body, can anybody with any product write green on the side of it?”
- “It is too new for them to have these regulations.”
- “There needs to be a standard to these things, certain points to be certified green. Who is setting the standards? I don’t think anyone is.”
So maybe the government should just double its efforts to publicize its standards- and reassure the public, “We’re on it!” Not so much. When the topic of the federal government comes up in our focus groups and on our surveys, the response is generally more negative than positive. For the past four years, in our Energy Pulse® studies, we’ve asked the question, “Who or what is most to blame for rising energy prices?” and for years, the number one answer has been “The U.S. Government.”
We’ve always explained this by saying consumers are very reluctant to blame themselves and the government is an easy scapegoat. However, in 2008 we added some follow-up questions to try to discern why people blame the government, or at least help explain where they think the government is dropping the ball. The majority of responses generally reflect the opinion that the federal government should have been more proactive—found better energy alternatives or developed a better plan by now.
In addition, during our Spring Eco Pulse focus groups, many consumers expressed doubt regarding the government’s oversight abilities – primarily stemming from the recent spinach, peanut and other food recalls. The news that so little of our food supply is actually inspected and the limited size of the FDA’s inspection force have come as a shock to most Americans. Many blame the FDA, and this negative perception has harmed overall perceptions of government oversight and certification power:
- “I wouldn’t trust the FDA; there have been too many recalls.”
- “If the FDA certifies it, beware!”
- “They (the government) had problems with spinach and pistachios.”
The one bright spot is in the area of energy efficiency. Consumers are very aware of the ENERGY STAR® logo, and there’s a great deal of trust and value placed on this certification. They like it because it’s straightforward and numerical.
- “I heard ENERGY STAR® controls all that and the manufacturers have to go to them. They set the standard; if you don’t meet their standard, you don’t get the sticker. They are the ‘god’ in this thing.”
- “I pretty much believe what ENERGY STAR® says about my appliance.”
- “Well, with ENERGY STAR® , they give you a grid and show you what your savings is; they document it for you.”
A conjoint analysis of washing machine product choices in our soon-to-be-published Eco Pulse 2009 study confirmed the value of this certification. We tested the ENERGY STAR® feature against a number of other features for washing machines and found the ENERGY STAR® certification was the most important product feature for this category. The ENERGY STAR® certification accounted for 32.4% of the overall purchase decision, compared to 31.7% attributed to price, 10% to brand, 8% to loading style, etc. Washing machines shown with the ENERGY STAR® certification were chosen 65% more often than washing machines without ENERGY STAR® certification.
Ironically, however, we’ve found very little awareness that ENERGY STAR® is a government-sponsored program in focus groups. Most think it’s a third party trade association or some independent testing organization like Consumer Reports. So, would consumers trust it so much if more knew it was sponsored by the government? I’m just not sure.