sustainable business

‘Claiming Green’ study: consumers confused, B2B buyers savvy

Carolyn McMaster | November 25, 2014

New market research says both retail consumers and B2B purchasers are likely to choose a product with a third-party green product certification over one without. Claiming Green: The Influence of Green Product Claims on Purchase Intent and Brand Perception, also indicates that green product claims are not as good at selling without the certification and that misleading or confusing claims can ding brand perception.

The study, conducted by the Shelton Group marketing firm and the green-product certifier UL Environment, asked 1,017 retail consumers about their perceptions of different green claims and certifications, and performed head-to-head testing of three types of green claims: legitimate claims that meet Federal Trade Commission Green Guides requirements but are not certified by a third party; claims certified by a third-party, such as UL Environment or Green Seal; and problematic claims—vague, irrelevant, unproven or false statements that wouldn’t pass Green Guides muster (aka greenwashing).

For the comparative testing, researchers showed participants visual examples (say, a label on the back of carpet) of a problematic claim and of a legitimate or certified claim, and asked them to say which they would choose (“neither” was also an option). There were 17 products across four categories (home improvement, electronics, personal care and cleaning products), which generated more than 41,000 comparisons.

The research also included work with a selected sample of 27 B2B purchasers in a three-day session that involved a survey, online discussion and interviews.

Here are a few highlights from Claiming Green.

Green claims are still misunderstood. Consumers chose certified claims 54 percent of the time over problematic claims. They chose legitimate claims only 39 percent of the time vs. 35 percent for problematic claims. I would have expected both certified claims and legitimate claims to trump problematic claims by larger margins.

Green adds value—but not always. 70 percent of those surveyed said they would pay more for a product with a certified claim, and 59 percent said the same of a product with a problematic claim. Only 44 percent opted for a legitimate claim. (Unfortunately, the study didn’t delve into motivations.)

Those numbers conflict with findings about brand perception. Just over half (56 percent) said certifications made products more reputable—but 28 percent said it didn’t make a difference and 16 percent said it made brands less reputable. (I want further research on that.)

Certification logos alone don’t do the job. Consumers were most confused by stand-alone certification logos that lacked qualifying language. Even if they trust the label, people often don’t know what it means. Also, technical language confuses people (“low VOCs” did the worst of claims tested), and they don’t like vague, generic claims such as “cruelty free” and “eco-friendly.”

These findings are no surprise to me—we have been warning companies against those mistakes since publishing our Credibility Killers guides in 2008 and developing the Thinkshift Credibility Quotient in 2009.

B2B buyers are more sophisticated. The researchers found that B2B decision makers are much savvier than retail consumers. They are not confused by legitimate claims; they also called out the problem posed by manufacturer-created labels that imply third-party certification.

Three-fourths (77 percent) of them say products with third-party certifications are more reputable, and even more (89 percent) are willing to pay a premium for those products—possibly because B2B purchasers say trusted certifications help them save time and provide quality assurance. These buyers are looking to reduce their risk.

During last week’s webinar about the study findings, attendee Park Howell noted that “If we’re not crystal clear on what we’re communicating to consumers about sustainability, they will make up their own stories.”

That’s right. We marketers need to educate and be credible, and make sustainability the best option. (At Thinkshift, we think sustainability also has to be the sexiest option.) Certifications are just one tool toward that goal.


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