What’s in it? Business customers care more than you might think.

What’s in it? Business customers care more than you might think.

While few companies have stated initiatives directly addressing the issue, B2B decision makers share the same concerns about chemical content as consumers, overall. This is the first of two articles featuring important findings from Shelton’s newly released B2B Pulse study.

In survey design, we strive to avoid scare language. Words like “toxins” or “toxic” trigger a strong reaction when included in an answer option list – usually ending up at, or near, the top of consumer concerns. Nobody wants to buy products that are “toxic.” Respondents in our Eco Pulse™ 2013 study considered removing “chemicals of concern” the second most important thing a company could do to positively impact purchase decisions. In addition, almost half (48%) of respondents said they were concerned about indoor air quality, and over half (54%) said they were concerned about chemicals found in skin care and cosmetic products.

Yet it’s hard to measure product content concerns without using scary phrases like “chemicals of concern” or “potential toxins” because Americans, while becoming increasingly (albeit vaguely) worried, are generally clueless about product content – blissfully ignorant of the fact that many products they buy contain potentially harmful chemicals and mostly unaware of what they should be concerned about.

When we offer ways to improve indoor air quality, few choose options that address product VOC (volatile organic compound) emissions. And when we provide content lists containing potential toxins, few people are knowledgeable enough to identify what they should be wary of. Unable to discriminate between potentially harmful and beneficial content, they often select any option with a “chemically” name, e.g., ascorbic acid.

Business-to-business (B2B) marketers should take note that this concern is shared, not just by consumers, but also among B2B decision makers as they choose products for their companies. 

Our just-released B2B Pulse study found that purchasing decisions are influenced as much, if not more, by the personal concerns and biases of the decision makers as they are by their companies’ stated/tracked sustainability initiatives. Only 11% of companies have, or are developing, sustainability scorecards to guide purchasing, so most decision making is happening without formal guidelines.

This means that whatever decision makers are concerned about in their personal lives bleeds over into their business decisions. B2B Pulse product content reactions offer a great case-in-point.

We spoke to a wide variety of decision makers (facility and purchasing managers, CEOs, buyers, CFOs, etc.) in a variety of sectors (business services, education, health care, manufacturing, etc.) and found that sustainability does affect decisions. Over 70% of respondents claimed that sustainability is personally important to them in purchasing decisions – slightly more than the percentage who said sustainability is important to their companies (67%).

And while we found that sustainability is primarily considered to be a tie-breaker in business decision making, some sustainable features and claims are more powerful than others. Specifically, product content (“product contains no chemicals of concern”) was rated the most important sustainable feature in product selection out of a list of 20 different claims, including third-party certification, recycled content, zero waste manufacturing, etc.

This, despite the fact that product content/materials toxicity avoidance landed mid-way down a list of 24 different sustainability initiatives for which companies have stated goals or are currently measuring or reporting – lagging far behind more popular initiatives like recycling (70%) and energy efficiency (62%).

So, while few companies (only 17%) have a stated initiative around this issue, it’s important to know that decision makers care about it.

This could create a new play in the B2B sales playbook. Most of our B2B clients are working on how to integrate sustainability into their RFPs and sales calls, with some specifically training their reps to review prospects’ corporate sustainability reports to gain insight into their sustainability priorities before  making sales calls. While that’s certainly a smart practice, it’s not enough. Sales reps should remember that business decision makers “are people too” and, when appropriate, should integrate common consumer concerns, like product content, into their sales conversations.

And product content concerns should also be top of mind in product development initiatives. In our experience, most B2B-oriented companies (outside of the food industry) focus primarily on product efficacy/performance and price point. Initiatives to incorporate safer content are often de-prioritized because most customers aren’t asking for it and non-toxic content alternatives often cost more. But just like consumers, few business decision makers are knowledgeable enough to ask. If you create a product differentiated by safe, non-toxic content, it could raise awareness in your industry and resonate with personal concerns – giving you a competitive edge.


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Posted on

January 15, 2014

About the Author

Lee Ann Head

Lee Ann is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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