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‘Wild west’ of eco-labels: sustainability claims are confusing consumers

 
Eco-Labels

There are an estimated 455 eco-labels, each supposedly working as a benchmark. Photograph: Tim Gainey / Alamy

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “‘Wild west’ of eco-labels: sustainability claims are confusing consumers” was written by Lucy Atkinson, for theguardian.com on Friday 4th July 2014 06.00 UTC

Standing in front of a shelf of egg cartons at a supermarket, the typical consumer might be forgiven for being confused. Cage-free or free-range? Free-roaming or free-farmed? Grass-fed, vegetarian-fed or whole grain-fed? Antibiotic-free, biodynamic, hormone-free, irradiated, natural, organic or pasteurised? The choices are endless: eggs have more eco-labels than any other product, according to GreenerChoices, a website from the non-profit consumer advocacy group Consumers Union.

And yet this litany of labels is not necessarily a good thing. Rarely are the claims regulated or based on verifiable standards. “There are too many labels out there,” says Valerie Davis, co-founder and CEO of the Austin, Texas-based environmental advertising and public relations agency EnviroMedia. “And too few of them are the real thing.”

Today’s consumer is faced with an estimated 455 eco-labels across 25 industry categories, from energy and clothing to food and household cleaners. But very few of these labels give people meaningful guidance in choosing environmentally superior products. “It’s like the wild west,” says Gay Browne, founder and CEO of Santa Barbara, California-based Greenopia, an online database and independent rating system of green businesses. Too many labels offer weak or unsubstantiated claims and many amount to little more than self-declarations made by individual companies.

My own research indicates consumers care about the source of the label and the quality of information it contains. In an experiment that appeared recently in the Journal of Advertising my colleague and I found that consumers prefer detailed labels that contain information about the eco-claims being made rather than simple icons or graphics that suggest eco-friendly qualities.

These kinds of promises – for example, that eggs are free-range or that lumber was harvested in a sustainable way – are called credence claims and are impossible for individual consumers to verify on their own. Consumers cannot realistically visit the chicken farm or the forest to verify these things. So in evaluating the truthfulness of these claims, consumers prefer to rely on more detailed information rather than a simple green logo or eco-endorsement that lacks substance.

For consumers, it is a leap of faith to trust that the label is honest and credible. Jessica Shaw, a stay-at-home mother of two in Austin, Texas, says she tries to lead a green lifestyle. She has installed solar panels on her house, drives an electric car and buys organic food. But she still approaches her purchase decisions with scepticism and finds herself asking, “Is it really organic? Is it really Fairtrade? You just have to accept it at face value”.

Our study also tested if the source of an eco-label – whether it comes from a government agency or a corporate entity – affected consumers’ evaluations. We found that people may like corporations for getting into the business of eco-labelling, but they are much more likely to trust labels that come from governments. The distinction comes down to the difference between liking something versus trusting it.

It is easier to engender a feeling of liking than a feeling of trust. Liking is a fairly malleable judgment, a somewhat casual feeling that is easily changed as new information comes along. Trust, on the other hand, is harder to develop. Government labels are more likely to be trusted than corporate ones, most likely because the government has a longer track record of issuing labels and overseeing product standards, especially when it comes to food. So consumers might like the fact that a company such as Wal-Mart is trying to improve its carbon footprint and label its products with a Sustainability Index, but they might be less trusting of the truthfulness and reliability of these labels.

EnviroMedia’s Davis says that in evaluating eco-labels consumers should look for transparency and be sceptical of corporate self-declarations about products claimed to be environmentally friendly. Her agency runs the Green Washing Index, a crowd-sourced database and critique of green advertisements that promote misleading or deceptive green claims. Davis says labels that come from third parties with verifiable criteria and standards are generally superior. Often, this means government-issued labels like the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star, which evaluates products’ energy efficiency. These third-party labels are more transparent and avoid the risk of a conflict of interest. “The federal government isn’t selling its own products,” says Davis.

 

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