If a sustainably harvested tree falls in an organic forest was it a natural occurrence?

If a sustainably harvested tree falls in an organic forest was it a natural occurrence?

Forgive the silly title of this post. It’s intended to make a point we heard loud and clear last night in our Eco Pulse focus groups in LA.

First a bit of background: we conduct focus groups prior to our major proprietary quantitative studies to probe on some themes we’ve been seeing in past studies and help us sharpen the survey instrument for the next round of studies. In this case (and we’ve got two more groups in St. Louis tonight) we’re probing on:

  • Drivers for green purchases by category. We’ve long seen that the underlying drivers for buying green products are happiness, peace of mind, control and better health. But we want to see if those drivers differ between, say, organic vegetables and a hybrid car.
  • Awareness of green certification labeling/logos (which we’ve seen is sorely needed…see some of my previous posts)
  • Ranking of green importance by category – so is it more important to be green as it relates to energy or more important to be green as it relates to health and beauty products?
  • Understanding of terms that continuously get used in this space – like organic, natural, sustainable and green.

This is the piece my post title refers to. We weren’t surprised to see that consumers use many of these terms interchangeably. We were surprised to see the hesitancy that popped up in our participants as they struggled to define the difference between the terms. As our Director of Research (who moderated the groups) probed with questions like “What’s the difference between organic and natural?” and “Can a product be natural but not organic? How about vice versa?” participants were stumped…and a little frustrated.

“It’s all just a way to charge you more money” said one participant. Others simply didn’t know what to think. Both groups settled on the idea that “natural” might be better than “organic” because they seemed to better understand what’s natural (“I’d know it if I saw it”) whereas organic seemed fuzzy and hard to define.

What we know is when a consumer can’t quickly understand the value proposition – what’s in it for them to purchase product A over product B – they stick with tried and true options and just keep doing what they’ve always done. Our groups last night tell us that screaming that a product is “100% organic!” isn’t any more of a home run than screaming “save money!” People have to be able to wrap their minds – and hearts – around what’s on offer and decide if it’s a fit.

Trusted green labels can help, and we saw some promise in this regard – UL, Good Housekeeping and ENERGY STAR® all tested well (as compared to Home Depot’s Eco Options, USDA’s Certified Organic and the relatively new Cradle to Cradle certification, all of which participants said they weren’t familiar with.) But we’re thinking a label isn’t enough – as is always the case, using simple, easy to understand terminology helps products pass the “sniff test” with consumers. And words like “sustainable” and “organic” just aren’t that easy to understand for most consumers.

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.

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