There are few things more fashionable these days than being “green”, but separating a truly eco-friendly bottle of sunscreen from a bottle of emerald-tinted snake-oil can be tough even for the shrewdest of consumers.
Companies use everything from catchy buzzwords to certain color and design choices and brand associations to convince us their product is Good for Mother Earth. Learning to spot these tricks will help you actually do better by the planet—and avoid wasting your money on marketing gimmicks.
Many of us buy green based on an implicit assumption that eco-friendly labels and buzzwords mean something. This, unfortunately, isn’t always the case. “People see ‘environmentally friendly,’ or ‘green,’ or they see a recyclable symbol, and they jump to all kinds of conclusions,” Katherine Smith, a marketing professor at Texas A&M, told Earther. According to Smith, “green” is often a placeholder for all manner of often unrelated ethical, ecological, and climatic concerns.
Look no further than the perks we assume come with certain foods. One Consumer Reports survey concluded that up to 68 percent of people believe that meat labeled “natural” comes from animals fed no artificial growth hormones and 60 percent think it means no GMOs—despite the fact that FDA guidelines for “natural” are right now virtually meaningless.
We also often confuse “organic” with “free-range,” and believe that the former means that it has no “chemicals” in it. It doesn’t: While companies have to earn the iconic green and white label through avoiding many synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, plenty of compounds are approved for use on organic produce, including copper compounds, hydrogen peroxide, soaps, and pyrethrins. And while many associate organic with more sustainable agricultural practices, organic crops often require more land and resources to produce—enough to make switching the world to organic agriculture pretty much unfeasible.
Meanwhile GMOs, which are prohibited in organic production are sometimes modified in ways that require fewer pesticides.
Other green and clean terms, such as “free-of”, “recyclable”, and “biodegradable” have stringent Federal Trade Commission guidelines, but these guidelines have gaps, too. Plastic bags, for instance, can be made biodegradable at the expense of a larger ecological footprint. On the other hand, if a company tries new, lighter plastic packaging using the same original material—something that can make a huge difference in the sustainability of a product—it’d still be hard-pressed to market the product as more sustainable by FTC standards.
Finally, it’s not just what buzzword you use, but how you use it. As one 2011 paper found, we intuitively perceive negative claims, such as “free of x,” more negatively than positive ones like “contains x.” That’s a double-edged sword. Negative claims are explicit, providing actionable information on whether or not a product contains something you want to avoid.
However, they can also have pitfalls, as evidenced by the advent of “gluten-free” labeling on all sorts of products, including some, like water, that never contained gluten to begin with. This can stoke pseudoscientific concerns, potentially biasing customers away from products that aren’t better or even different.
Buzzwords aren’t the only thing that trigger us to buy. “We process visuals faster than words,” Smith said.
In one 2014 survey of over 1,300 millennials, roughly 30 percent reported believing that simple or green-colored packaging indicate a sustainable product. For nature-evoking imagery and green-sounding product names, belief in the product’s sustainability rose to 48 and 40 percent, respectively. Another study from 2008 found products using a “clean, uncluttered” design and packaging are more likely to be seen as green by millennials.
As customers, we tend to also place more importance on brand reputation than we perhaps should. Brands that are the first to establish a category of sustainable products often tend to be favored in the long run. After Clorox launched Green Works, the market for natural cleaners grew considerably. Yet, five years later, Clorox still held nearly a quarter of natural cleaners on the market.
Meanwhile, some of the most environmentally friendly corporate moves are under acknowledged thanks to a company’s pre-existing bad reputation. Both Smith and Michael Polonsky, a marketing professor at Deakin University, pointed to Walmart’s over a decade-long campaign to impose stricter environmental standards on its supply chain and shipping fleet as one of the most impactful things any brand has done to improve its sustainability. Yet, as Smith put it, “people definitely don’t think Walmart does anything.”
“Fine, we get it,” I hear you saying. “We take mental shortcuts, and the real guidelines for navigating our way through our purchases are often porous and inconsistent. What’s the fix?”
Long-term, several research groups have proposed something akin to a nutrition label for scoring products’ sustainability. They’ve pointed to our reliance on often specious heuristics as evidence for the necessity of green nutrition labels. However, not much has come of their calls yet—particularly as far as government-backed labels are concerned.
Perhaps the closest such a label came to widespread implementation was in 2008, when the UK supermarket chain Tesco mandated that products sold in its stores be marked with a green-yellow-red label representing their carbon footprints. But within a few years, the chain found the burden of trying to verify and enforce these footprint labels too great, and dropped them.
Even if the powers that be suddenly decided to invest heavily in green labels, there are two catches. One, there’s a limit to how much information people want to parse through. Two, as Polonsky put it, “you could come up with something that would be ideal, but there are gonna be so many issues that it would make a nutritional label look simple.”
Chief among those issues is what factors to include when scoring a product’s sustainability: water use, carbon output, smog, water pollution, resource consumption, energy efficiency, recyclability, biodegradability—the list goes on. Should ethical considerations be included? Scoring something like a computer, whose hundreds of components all have completely different sources and lifecycles, poses a technical nightmare.
To some, like Smith, third-party seals are better choices than government intervention. Certainly, many seals such as the Rainforest Alliance certification or Fair Trade Association have time-tested standards that are pretty transparent. However, the criteria these organizations use in their labels aren’t standardized in any way. And some, such as Fair Trade with its stipulation against GMOs, tend to conflate ethical and environmental concerns.
Despite the challenges, support for some kind of government eco-label has gotten stronger— especially in light of states like California having already pushed for more transparency on the ethics of companies’ supply chains.
In the short-term, being aware that you’re trusting a product just because its plastic wrap is green is a good start. In the longer term, start perusing Consumer Report’s Green Choices: a site and app that breaks down some of the standards behind the confusing array of labels and seals found in most stores.
And at the end of the day, bear in mind that all green marketing techniques—be they buzzwords, images of happy animals on bucolic farms, or shout-outs to well-regarded brands—are an appeal to your altruism, your ego, or your sense of social identity. That doesn’t make these products bad. But it should make you think.