Sustainability: Why Eco-Friendly Marketing Isn’t Always Consumer-Friendly

Jul 14, 2016

It’s been a whole decade since Al Gore brought the troubling effects of climate change to the cultural forefront with his documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” Since then, scientists and laymen alike have learned a lot more about our relationship to the environment, and the idea of sustainability has become a priority for many. In response, more and more brands are moving beyond traditional methods of differentiation in favor of eco-friendly product development and social responsibility in order to connect with their target audiences.

But when it comes to walking the aisle of a grocery or convenience store, the vastness of choices and conflicting, unstandardized terminology makes it difficult for the average consumer to weigh the environmental and social impact of the products they buy and use every day. With labels like “all-natural” and “fair trade” being thrown around without context or explanation, it got us wondering: How can brands better communicate their sustainable practices—if any—to their customers?

The Research

In order to figure out what terminology brands should utilize in taglines and packaging to convey sustainability, we launched an Instant Research Group* of males and females from ages 18-65 who are the primary shoppers in the household, and framed our qualitative research within the following objectives:

1. Explore what consumers think of sustainable products in general

2. Discover expectations around how they identify a product as sustainable

3. Explore words and phrases they use to think about eco-friendly attributes and practices

4. Ask them to generate taglines or phrases around these issues

The Results

Sustainability is seen as providing environmental benefits as well as holistic societal benefits.

When asked for their definitions of sustainability, respondents felt that it implies a brand and/or product is environmentally friendly, decomposes easily, has a limited carbon footprint, and uses renewable resources. Some respondents took it a step further, noting that sustainable products should provide social and economic benefits as well, especially around public health and proactive environmentalism. Since packaging is usually the first way a consumer recognizes a sustainable product, most respondents found excess packaging to be an easy way to identify brands that are not eco-friendly.

“Sustainability influences my decisions on what I will and will not purchase; if a product is packaged with too much material, I am much less likely to purchase it.”  41, Female

A number of factors influence purchase—but affordability usually trumps sustainability.

Like most purchase decisions, consumers have a lot to consider before making a choice. Respondents generally preferred to buy sustainable products, but their level of commitment differed based on the category, cost, and efficacy of the product. Respondents noted that eco-friendly brands tend to make their presence known with labeling, but they usually look beyond those vague terms to the ingredient list and sourcing when considering a purchase. For cleaning products, efficacy comparable to non-natural products was important to many, with one respondent indicating the health of her children as a reason to buy sustainable alternatives. But for many respondents, price was the deciding factor, regardless of how strongly they felt about the environment.

“Honestly it depends on price, if the price difference isn’t too much higher I will choose the sustainable product. But it has to still be affordable.” – 38, Female

Consumers want proof of the product’s sustainability claims—and that it’s just as good as the alternative.

Many respondents felt that there was no way for them to gauge the validity or accuracy of the sustainability claims made by brands due to their vague, conflicting copy. There were a number of packaging labels mentioned, including “eco-friendly,” “natural,” and “GMO-free,” that many respondents complained were impossible to measure, and thus induced a lot of skepticism. Other respondents were concerned about the practicality of sustainable cleaning products, noting that they would like to see evidence that they are just as effective as their non-sustainable counterparts.

“I would have to see documented results from a reliable source such as the FDA. Many companies claim their product is sustainable but most offer no proof of any sort…” – 39, Male

Brands Need to Back Up Their Sustainability Claims in the Aisle

Based on our respondents’ consensus, most consumers do not—and in fact, feel they cannot—rely on the current terminology used to denote sustainability. They ignore stickers when shopping and investigate ingredients instead; they recognize the disconnect between excessive materials and claims of sustainable sourcing. In order for eco-friendly brands to gain consumer trust, there are a number of steps they can take to prove their legitimacy with thorough package testing and labeling.

  • Back up your sustainability claims with data and third-party validation.

Most respondents were highly skeptical of common sustainability labels in the marketplace, explaining that these claims are not standardized in any way, and they have no way of knowing how companies or products are evaluated, if at all. Many wanted statistics on sustainability and a brand’s commitment to it, as well as a trusted third party such as the FDA to certify these claims. Given such concern and confusion, using clear, holistic explanations of a product’s environmental and societal benefits right on the package could help reduce consumer skepticism. The more evidence and information shoppers receive about a product, the more confidence they will have in its marketing claims.

  • Make sure your positioning aligns with your packaging.

Consumers want evidence a sustainable product has been made with techniques that protect the environment, so packaging style and material is often the first indicator of environmental friendliness to many shoppers. Avoid excess materials for eco-friendly products, and if recycled matter was used, indicate what kind and how much. It may also be helpful to note the sourcing and toxicity of ingredients listed, especially if there are many, since this is often a red flag. It would also be helpful to avoid sustainability buzzwords that carry no weight for the consumer.

  • Tell the story of your sustainable product.

Sustainable sourcing proved to be a hot topic among respondents. Many respondents felt that in order to be considered sustainable, a product must be made from renewable ingredients. In order to prove sustainable sourcing, brands should consider telling the story of that sourcing on the product’s package. This could prove especially effective for sustainable food products: one respondent greatly appreciated the information Whole Foods provides on the farmers who raise the local produce, poultry, and meat.

  • Incorporate simple explanations into your sustainable product’s tagline.

To further reduce consumer skepticism, consider incorporating short, simple explanations about how your product is sustainable right into its tagline. When asked to produce their own taglines for eco-friendly products, most respondents incorporated explanations of how a product delivers on its claims with percentages and comparisons. Adding verifiable and measurable data to your product’s tagline may increase its believability and bolster its campaign.

Our qualitative market research revealed that though sustainability is usually just one factor in a shopper’s decisions, it is an important one that demands evidence. Packaging sustainable products with less material and more information on a brand’s demonstrable commitment to bettering the planet while delivering a quality product will help prove sustainability to customers as they consider the shelf. Be sure to check out the rest of the report below for more insights regarding

  • Respondents’ attitudes towards water conservation, recycling, production waste, and sustainable sourcing
  • What aspect of sustainability respondents felt was the most important
  • Which eco-friendly brands respondents were aware of and purchase often
  • Respondents’ suggestions for eco-friendly taglines
  • Further implications for positioning, packaging, and labeling

*An Instant Research Group is an online qualitative research method where respondents interact with each other while answering open-ended questions and follow-ups posted by a trained moderator.

Written By

Amelia Erickson

Amelia Erickson

Sr. Manager, Demand Generation

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