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Americans Give Green Marketing Claims Too Much Credit, Study Finds

Many Americans believe products to be better for the environment than they actually are, according to research by strategy and communications agency Cone.

Consumers continue to misunderstand phrases commonly used in environmental marketing and advertising – such as “green” or “environmentally friendly” – giving products a greater halo than they may deserve, the 2011 Cone Green Gap Trend Tracker found. A growing number of Americans (97 percent in 2011, as compared to 90 percent in 2008) believe they know what these terms mean, yet their interpretations are often inaccurate, Cone said.

More than two in five Americans (41 percent) erroneously believe these terms mean a product has a positive impact on the environment. Only 29 percent understand that these terms more accurately describe products with less environmental impact than previous versions or competing products, Cone said.

Despite their misunderstandings, most Americans will punish a company for using misleading claims. The survey found that 71 percent will stop buying the product if they feel misled, and of those, more than a third (37 percent) will go so far as to boycott the company’s products entirely.

Yet three-quarters of respondents said it is OK if a company is not environmentally perfect, as long as it is honest and transparent about its efforts.

“It’s telling that three years after Cone first conducted the Green Gap survey, not much has changed,” says Jonathan Yohannan, Cone’s senior vice president of corporate responsibility. “Consumers continue to be confused about environmental claims, often without realizing it. This creates a huge risk for consumer backlash.”

The results appear to be in contrast to those of a Carbon Trust survey, which found that only seven percent of consumers in the U.K. take companies at their word on their actions to reduce climate impacts.

But the Cone study also found that a majority of American consumers are distrustful of companies’ environmental claims (57 percent) and are overwhelmed by the amount of environmental messages in the marketplace (51 percent).

The study also tested which of three common marketing approaches was most influential in consumer purchase decisions. Consumers were asked to “purchase” the most environmentally responsible of three generic cleaning products based on an isolated marketing approach – a certification, a vague environmental claim or an environmental image.

The mock certification was by far the most influential purchasing driver, chosen by 51 percent of respondents. The same percent believed that the certification indicated that the product was reviewed and verified by a credible third party.

Thirty percent of respondents chose the product with a vague “made with natural ingredients” claim, and 19 percent chose a product based on environmental imagery alone. Some respondents – 14 percent – even believed the environmental imagery indicated this product is safe for the environment.

The study found that over half of respondents, 59 percent, think it is only acceptable for marketers to use general environmental claims when they are backed up with additional detail and explanation. Three-quarters wish companies would do a better job helping them understand the environmental terms the firms use. And 79 percent want detailed information readily accessible on product packaging.

“To overcome this gap between environmental messaging and consumer perception, companies need to provide detailed information in-line with the Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines in a place where consumers are making purchase decisions,” Yohannan said.

The U.S. government is working to update green advertising standards through proposed revisions to its Green Guides, which advise advertisers on sustainability claims, but the revised guidelines have yet to be finalized.

More on Cone’s 2008 results is available here.

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