Three great reasons NOT to go green

by Dec 3, 2009

I spoke at the American Home Furnishings Association’s annual Sustainability Summit yesterday and heard a few insights from other speakers that, combined with our consumer data, offers a cautionary tale for any manufacturer or retailer who intends to throw their hat into the green ring lightly:

1) You could very easily put your money behind a green label/certification program that does you no good.

Both our Eco Pulse and Green Living Pulse studies show that the number one way consumers learn about green products is by reading the packaging on the products.  Yet 93% of the population think manufacturers have less than altruistic motives for being on the green train.  So they’re turning to the very people they don’t trust to tell them what’s green.  Why?  Because almost half the population doesn’t know who the best source is for certification/third party endorsement of green products.  And the vast majority of the population doesn’t recognize most of the existing green labels we regularly test in focus groups and proprietary client work.

From what I heard yesterday it’s clear that we’re nowhere near settling this issue.  Heather Gadanniex of MindClick Sustainable Growth Management, a life cycle assessment firm, attempted to explain and categorize the various labels manufacturers could look to for their products…but her presentation seemed to create more questions than it answered.  Not her fault — it’s just a highly complex issue with lots of layers to the onion.  The point is:  if it’s confusing to manufacturers (and to the writer of this blog who’s immersed in sustainability all day long), it’s clear as mud to consumers.  And we know what consumers do when they’re confused:  Nothing.

2) You’re on the hook for your supplier’s claims.

And the FTC’s getting more aggressive about investigating green claims, thanks to the plethora of them out there now.  Christie Grymes, a consumer protection attorney with Kelley Drye LLP, gave an excellent overview of the FTC’s Green Guides (and previewed what will hopefully be updated about them soon).  Though there were several words of wisdom about what kinds of green claims will fly in the eyes of the FTC (and what won’t), the piece that jumped out to me is that manufacturers cannot just rely on the claims of their manufacturers.  If you buy a component from somebody else to put in your product, and that supplier says it’s green, you must substantiate that before you put that claim in your packaging or advertising.  If any doubt about the claim emerges, the FTC will look to you, not your supplier, for proof.

3) If you misrepresent a product’s green-ness — even unwittingly — consumers will clobber you.

Our Eco Pulse study revealed that 40% of the population would stop buying a product if it had been advertised as green and the manufacturer was found guilty of environmental infractions.  And 36% would not only stop buying the product, they’d also lobby their friends and family to stop buying the product — which is a 31% increase over last year’s answer.  That reveals the pent up frustration consumers have over wanting to be green and not knowing how to really know/who to trust that a product is, in fact, green.

So, despite the title of this post, the recommendation here is not that you shouldn’t pursue a green business strategy.  It’s simply to clarify that it’s just that:  a business strategy first, and never a marketing strategy alone.  Just giving the appearance of being green isn’t enough — you must be real about it if you want it to work.  Otherwise, you risk the wrath of the FTC — and consumers.

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About the Author

Brian Kelley

Brian is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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