Green Gap Survey: Public Prefers Marketing Oversight

Americans misunderstand key phrases commonly used in environmental marketing and advertising, giving products a greater environmental halo than they deserve and creating a growing risk of backlash. At the same time, a majority of Americans support government regulation of such messages.

These are among the findings of the 2008 Green Gap Survey, conducted by Cone LLC and The Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship.

According to the survey, almost four in 10 (39 percent) Americans are preferentially buying products they believe to be "environmentally friendly." Almost half (48 percent) of the population erroneously believes a product marketed as "green" or "environmentally friendly" has a positive (that is, beneficial) impact on the environment. Only 22 percent understand these terms more accurately describe products with less negative environmental impact than previous versions or competing products.

The survey clearly shows that Americans do not realize this green gap exists:

• 47 percent trust companies to tell them the truth in environmental messaging.

• 45 percent believe companies are accurately communicating information about their impact on the environment.

• 61 percent of Americans say they understand the environmental terms companies use in their advertising.

"The gap creates significant risk of embarrassment for companies and disillusionment for consumers," says Mike Lawrence, executive vice president of corporate responsibility, Cone LLC. "Activists are closely monitoring green claims and can quickly share information online about the actual environmental impact of a product. The result can be accusations that a company is engaging in 'greenwashing' and is misleading the public."

Despite not recognizing the existing green gap, more than half of Americans (59 percent) support a move by the government to ensure the accuracy of environmental messaging by regulating it.

On April 30, the Federal Trade Commission will hold a workshop in Washington D.C. as part of the agency's regulatory review of the "Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims," commonly known as the Green Guides.

In addition to government, Americans believe other entities can play an important oversight role to ensure accuracy in environmental messaging:

• Certification by third-party organizations – 80 percent.

• Review and reporting by watchdog groups, news media, bloggers, etc. – 78 percent.

• Regulation by government – 76 percent.

• Self-policing by industry or business groups – 75 percent.

"The fact that Americans are so primed to trust companies may suggest the lack of control they feel around complex environmental issues, so it is not surprising that they also seek a third-party gatekeeper to help ensure the messages they see and hear are accurate," says Bradley Googins executive director of The Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship. "The motto really could be 'trust, but verify.' Maintaining the trust of consumers needs to be a top priority for companies."

People are listening to, interested in, and positively affected by environmental messaging. Thirty-eight percent say they feel informed by such messaging and another 11 percent feel empowered or inspired to act. Only 14 percent of the population says environmental messaging makes them either feel cynical or overwhelmed.

Cone LLC and The Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship believe the research suggests several strategies companies should use to effectively and credibly communicate about how their products or services impact the environment:

1. Be precise. Make specific claims that provide quantitative impacts. Seventy percent of Americans say quantifying the actual environmental impact of a product or service is influential in their purchasing decisions. In addition, the more precise an environmental claim, the more Americans will believe it. For example, 36 percent found the message "environmentally friendly" credible when used to describe a paper product, but more (60 percent) found the message "made with 80 percent post-consumer recycled paper" credible.

2. Be relevant. Demonstrate a clear connection between the product or service and the environment. Seventy-four percent of Americans say providing a clear connection between the product/service and the environmental issue (for example, a hybrid car and lower emissions) influences their purchasing decisions.

3. Be a resource. Provide additional information for consumers in a place where they want it. Americans say they are most likely to seek information online via a company's Web site (54 percent), a third-party Web site (51 percent), a search engine (48 percent) or via product packaging (45 percent).

4. Be consistent. Don't let marketing images send a signal that contradicts the carefully chosen words and facts you use. For example, showing an automobile parked in a virgin forest may be seen as insensitive, while a product growing out of a tree may be seen as exaggeration.

5. Be realistic. There are always more environmental improvements that can be made to a product or service, and they are but one piece of a much larger environmental journey for society. Communications that include some sense of context, as well as a "work in progress" tone, will be more credible and less subject to criticism.

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