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Consumers and Their Role in Sustainability Strategy

What can be learned from the French experiment?

It’s always interesting to see how various countries around the world might be urging businesses towards more sustainable means. I find the test pilot program launched on July 1, 2011 by France’s Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development, Transportation and Housing particularly fascinating because it could be indicative of a trend towards giving consumers a sustainability voice that I think may be too loud in ultimately serving them well.

To summarize the French effort briefly, 168 companies, including the likes of L’Oreal, H&M Levi Strauss and Coca-Cola, volunteered to engage in a year-long test pilot program communicating the environmental impacts, in terms of climate, air, biodiversity, and water, which could touch on more than 1,000 mass products that range from food, beauty, phones, computers, textiles, cleaning and paper.

At present, these manufacturers have room to maneuver in deciding how they want to reach consumers and what to tell them. The information can be conveyed on product packaging, in point of sale material, over a website, or wherever they believe it will be most useful to their consumers.  For example, the French group Casino has developed what it’s calling “The Environmental Index” with other industry representatives, an unnamed NGO and BIO Intelligence, a life-cycle consultant, which will be applied on around 100 food products. The index takes into account three categories of impact: climate change, water usage, and water pollution. The twist is that the impacts (measured in terms of CO2 emissions, liters of water and grams of phosphates) are aggregated into a single number that is compared to the impact of an “average food diet” of a French person. The resulting single indicator appears on the packaging with a QR code, for mobile and web applications, to provide additional information.

In an interesting follow-up, in October, the Ministry invited consumers to get involved in the process by asking them to participate in an online survey to vote for their most important criteria, such as water pollution, water conservation, air pollution, resource depletion and climate change.  Similarly, consumers were asked to weigh in on different types of visuals that portray these impacts, either in absolute or relative terms.

While I applaud having consumers, as stakeholders, involved in the process to get their feedback on the best way to visually present the environmental impact, I question how effective it is to ask them which criteria should be chosen. Just like any other consumer survey, this will likely only show what preoccupies them the most and this might have nothing to do with where a product‘s largest environmental impact lies. I’m not certain if the French effort similarly involves more organized associations or NGOs or not, but in general, having the changing concerns of consumers dictate how to make environmental priorities seems to set a dangerous precedent. As way of example, a recent Nielsen survey shows that, on a global level, climate change has lost ground in consumers’ environmental concerns and now ranks in sixth place, out of a list of six issues also including concerns over the use of pesticides, packaging waste and water shortages.  One wonders whether climate change’s slide down the list might have less to do with its overall importance and more to do with the fact that consumers are simply tired of the climate change discussion and more eager to move on to a fresh set of issues and new subject matter.

The French ministry’s guidelines for developing environmental information have not been finalized and published yet, but we know that the goal is to have this information adopt the  multi-criteria methodology used by Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), specifically a life cycle analysis. EPD labeling aims to make eco-labels as credible and useful as nutrition labels. Already used throughout the world, EPDs now cover all types of goods and services and therefore are linked to all types of industrial activities. But there is still room for improvement in the application of EPDs, so I’d like to suggest a specific course of action to make sure the end result is useful and scientifically sound.

To ensure that the criteria selected in the environmental product declarations tie meaningfully to the product’s environmental impact, it would be best to leave it not merely to industry or to consumers, but to develop those in unison with all types of interested parties, NGOs and government. Guidelines are crucial in order to ensure uniform presentation and comparability of environmental information for each product type, with clear categories of impact, consistent criteria, and comparable calculations and hypothesis. Going back to the Casino’s Environmental Index example, the methodology developed is easy enough to explain to consumers, but we can see that the indicator, presented as an aggregated index, has lost meaning in the process and will not allow for the comparison with other brands that develop other methodologies.

Finally, looking past the upfront criteria, businesses should also have their life cycle assessment verified by legitimate third parties, as recommended by ISO 14025 standards, and ideally, even ultimate environmental claims, to make sure that consumers will be comparing different brands of products on the same basis.

The irony is that these actions, which strike a careful balance of being inclusive of consumers’ thoughts without being dangerously submissive to them, are necessary if we are to alleviate greenwashing. We all know that the voluntary nature of environmental communication guidelines already brings about misleading and exaggerated claims. And, by having consumers, rather than scientific, NGOs and business process experts, set the agenda for the issues that “matter most” to a product’s commitment to the environment, we’re likely to put companies in unnecessary and unsustainable quandaries of promoting a so-called “planet-friendliness” predicated on popularity rather than objective science.

The 3 “Ps” of planet, profit and people are meant to be kept in constant check with one another.  Just as we know that making our planet’s needs only fit within the context of our profit motives is ineffective, being sustainably subservient to people – and all our quirks – isn’t the answer either.  Instead, we much pay great mind to the clear and compelling lessons of science and set our priorities with this information at center stage.  Bringing about true sustainability for the Earth is already a complex enough process, so let’s not make it harder than it has to be by adding humanity’s foibles into the equation.

Elaine Tassoni, M.Sc., is the Communication and Sustainability Manager, at Cascades Tissue Group’s head office.  Cascades Tissue is the fourth largest manufacturer of tissue paper in North America and a division of Cascades inc. which has, to date, had 18 life cycle analyses performed on its products and processes, either by a third party or by its internal R&D department, as part of its ecodesign and innovation development strategy. Elaine can be reached at: elaine_tassoni@cascades.com or 450-444-6459.

Elaine Tassoni
Elaine Tassoni, M.Sc., is the Communication and Sustainability Manager at Cascades Tissue Group’s head office.  Cascades Tissue is the fourth largest manufacturer of tissue paper in North America. It sells the North River line of environmentally preferable towel and tissue products, which are composed entirely of recycled paper and mostly from post-consumer material and are produced using Green-e certified wind energy and 80 percent less water than the North American paper industry average. Elaine can be reached at: elaine_tassoni@cascades.com or (450) 444-6459.
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2 thoughts on “Consumers and Their Role in Sustainability Strategy

  1. While I agree with the overall message of your article and am truly skeptical of the benefits of leaving sustainability decisions up to consumers (do they really care?), I must say some of your comments seem to be based on inaccurate information. For example, you refer several times to the fact that choices for environmental indicators that matter are left to consumers and the industry and lack scientific backing. This is simply not true. The indicators chosen for each category of consumer goods included in the experiment have been decided by working groups including NGOs and government experts and are based on relevance for that particular category. I am involved in the working group for food and can ensure you that NGOs and government representatives are very vocal there. There is also a coordinated effort to harmonize indicators and methodological choices across different product categories. In addition, you mention that environmental claims will not be verified by legitimate third parties. Again, this is not true. The French government body in charge of fraud control will be responsible for verifying claims, albeit they may not do it for all products. Where I do agree with you is that the lack of guidelines for communication of environmental information makes it next to impossible to do meaningful comparisons. But again, one of the major goals of the experiment is to try different methods and means of communication to see what is most effective, i.e. what makes a difference in the purchasing act. Early feedbacks indicate that the impact of displaying environmental information has been minimal in influencing buyers.

  2. Thank you for your reply Anne. The information you provided puts a new light on this topic. For your information, as I read the methodology used by the Casino consortium to develop their Environmental Index, the group mentioned that it had chosen these four specific indicators. I am happy to hear that NGOs and government experts are involved in the process and that environmental claims are in actuality verified. Hopefully, this verification process will occur with consistency and regularity to deter companies from greenwashing.

    As to your point that consumers don’t seem to pay much attention, and that EPDs don’t look like they impact consumers’ preference and buying behavior, I believe that this is the biggest hurdle of any sustainability program. As long as the information is only defined in terms of grams of phosphates or CO2 emissions, it may not be meaningful enough for consumers to act on it, whether the topic is EDPs, climate change or any other environmental issue. At some point, the scientific discourse has to give way to a communication based on consumers’ interests, lifestyles and values. I am most interested to seeing how this will be done.

    Please feel free to send me an email with additional information/documentation on this initiative. I look forward to your thoughts on this issue.

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