BfG News Issue 14 - Editor's Column: The Green Label

14 Jul 2008|Added Value

Leslie(2)The past year has born witness to a growing desire on the part of consumers to purchase products and services that behave responsibly. However, parallel to this growth is an increasing level of consumer confusion about and skepticism towards brands making ethical claims. A study  conducted by Ipsos Reid in the US in September of last year brings this gap to light: It showed that seven in ten Americans either ‘strongly’ or ‘somewhat’ agree that when companies call a product “green”, it is usually just a “marketing tactic”.

This cynical reaction is driven in great part by the plethora of communications making unverifiable and confusing claims, thus highlighting the need for clearer guidelines, particularly on-pack.

The average consumer is inundated with labels and claims when conducting his or her daily shopping. Some provide gentle and warm-hearted  content like John West’s declaration that their tuna is “Dolphin Friendly”. Others give hard facts on global warming impacts like Walkers Crisps:  ” 75 grammes of C02″.

There is no shortage of information on green or social initiatives. But who should consumers believe?  Do renowned brands have enough consumer trust to make stand-alone claims? The answer, as is often the case is ‘it depends’.  Research shows that some brands have a naturally strong ethical credit that allows them to promise responsible behaviour without outside verification. Evian for example benefits from an image as the most environmentally friendly brand in France. That gives the brand a fair amount of credibility to extemporise on its environmental initiatives. However, beware. Trust is hard-earned and easily lost. We would argue that most brands would do well to seek out third party certification like that of the Forest Stewardship council or the Fair Trade label to fully guarantee the veracity of the claims made.

But then, there are so many things to certify: whether it is carbon emissions, toxin-free product content, fair trade practices, governance or waste retrieval. Companies and brands are being asked to prove their clean credentials across a host of ethical areas. Finding organisations to certify each of these claims is a quite a challenge and wallpapering a packaging with multiple labels is confusing at best. How much do consumers really want to know?

In reality, consumer’s willingness to absorb facts will depend on their level of involvement in the purchase, their commitment to the issue at hand and the simplicity with which the content is presented. There is a tension between labels that provide objective information vs those that rate/evaluate. The former are more objective and leave consumers the responsibility of interpretation. Nutritional labelling is a good example of this. The food category is one where consumers are learning to educate themselves to read and understand nutritional content. Their commitment to healthy eating makes the investment worthwhile for many. But for others, this is too complicated and time consuming; they prefer a rating/evaluation system (like the traffic light or Energy star) that is faster and easier to read and makes the decision for the consumers about what is good and bad. The hitch is that these labels then become owners of the decision- criteria used to judge good from bad. The criteria themselves remain opaque and may not be relevant for all. In our opinion, the best labels should both educate and facilitate. They should allow people to make quick judgements when they need to but give them the opportunity to learn and interpret when they have the time.

Timberland, an American rugged footwear company, has an interesting approach to labelling. They have extended the nutritional labelling concept to their shoes to provide detailed information on their environmental and social footprint of each shoe on the box. Many would argue that this approach is excessive and inundates consumers with information they don’t need. We believe the contrary. True, most consumers won’t read the label. But some will. And the rest will certainly feel good about a company showing that level of transparency about their processes. The fact that Timberland is one of the only companies to publish an updated list of their suppliers every year is indicative of their commitment to transparency.

Eco Batsu, a Japanese office furniture supplier has taken a different approach. Their new catalogue puts a label on products which don’t meet their ecological requirements and commits to eliminate non-conforming products within 3 years. They treat their consumers as intelligent partners in their goal to become more responsible. This creates emotional attachment while encouraging and rewarding gradual changes of behaviour to more responsible purchasing, both for the brand and its consumers.

Ultimately it is all about transparency and trust. Brands and companies that open their books, their factory doors and their dirty laundry baskets to auditors, certifiers and the general public are the ones who have the least to hide and are actively taking steps to evolve sustainably in areas where they fall down. Consumers can’t ask for much more than that.

Leslie Pascaud
Director, Responsible Marketing Practice
Added Value Europe

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