Green Consumerism: Behavior or Myth?

The 14th floor of the NVC held this timely program on March 15th.  The Sustainability Practice Network (SPN) and the Robert Zicklin Center for Corporate Integrity (ZCCI) hosted the event

Jacquie Ottman, author of The New Rules of Green Marketing, moderated a panel to discuss green consumerism.   Daniel Katz of the Overbrook Foundation along with David Mallen of the Better Business Bureau and Josh Parker of VerTerra fielded questions and offered their experience.

Ms. Ottman introduced the panel by reminding us that the green market could be worth 290 billion.  There are many pitfalls, greenwashing and sellouts, that could puncture the concept before it gets any larger. She started her discussion with questions:  What is the outlook for the green market?  What can we as consumers, students, business people, and representatives of non-profits and government do to keep the green movement moving?

Before introducing the panelists, Ms. Ottman had a quiz for the audience (this is Zicklin after all!).  What do the three arrows of the recycling triad mean?  See the bottom of the post for the answer from the crowd.

The panelist each spoke a bit about themselves and their thoughts.

Daniel Katz 8 in 10 people of 1987 knew nothing about the rainforest and the products that came from it.  The same people, though, could say something about whales.  The rainforest alliance now works with about 8,000 products from wood to tourism. That’s a big change.

David Mallen Is at the National Advertising Division within the BBB.  Green washing and green fatigue threaten the power of green products.  A program and a network of self-regulation is critical.  If you move the bar and ensure that advertising is true, then you empower consumers to drive policy and products.

Josh Parker Having something great is crucial, otherwise the marketing doesn’t hold up.  The central theme is trust. If we can remove the barrier of mistrust and skepticism, it opens up the market a lot.  There is a big challenge to for trustmarks to achieve a critical mass and recognition among consumers.

Ms. Ottman led a breezy question (prepared and from the audience) and answer session that started with:

Is relying on a third party certifier the best or even a good way to ensure that claims are accurate?  Are there others ways without having to go through the trouble, and price?

DM: Sustainability efforts and measurements can be complex to convey to consumers.  That is why trustmarks work.  For a little space on the packaging, it delivers a message.  Not all certifiers are equal.  Nor are they independent of the products that are being certified.  Some due diligence is required of companies seeking a trustmark.

DK:  EU consumers are better educated, more demanding.  The EU  also has more regulations.  As for relying on what your friends recommend — remember that social media is brand new.  Trustmarks are more than 20 years old.   Government as we experience it now is an outlier until it can fix itself.

How can we increase minimum green standards for all products?

DK:  In the US there are only two ways.  Either the consumer will demand it, or the company will see a cost savings.  Government is out of the picture right now.

JP:  It’s transparency and consumer demand that will drive anything.

DK:  What about a ratio that compares a company’s R&D budget to the budget for Marketing and PR.  That would seem to be illuminating

JP:  Such a ratio is an interesting component and an interesting story, but authentic products and/or a bootstrapping firm may have skewed numbers.

If green materials cost more, how can a green product compete on price?

DK:  Green materials may or may not be more; the costs may be displaced.  The bigger problem is design. Getting away from “design for the dump” or planned obsolescence is the much bigger problem and a huge source of cost.

JP:  Having a green product is less of switch, than a series of many decisions and trade offs.  It’s hard to draw a straight line from more expensive inputs to more costly goods.

What if there is no inherent value for the consumer in a green product?

JP:  You can be mission based without material differences.  You must have an outstanding product.  There are many components of a buying decision.  Eco-authenticity is only one of many factors.

DK:  In the case of coffee, you can have two bags equal in all ways.  The one with a sustainable background has a higher cost.  The value for the customer is knowing the provenance and valuing how it was produced.  It may not benefit you inherently.

Will that be enough to move markets?

DK:  Given the evolving markets it seems to be.  However, will evolution be quick enough to outpace climate change and other pressing problems.

Please explain FTC green guidelines?

DM:  FTC is a government regulator and if a company engages in deceptive practices then the FTC can take action.  But the process moves very slowly.  The Green Guidelines are a tool for industry.  It’s not a regulation or a standard, but only a guidelines.  They provide examples of hypotheticals and some definitions.

Do bar-code reader apps have potential for consumers to push the industry even further?

DK: Bar-code scanners are a hit, but will consumers take the energy and time?

DM: Bar-codes apps will be an excellent alternative to a green label on the package.  But it’s not a means to ensure that the claims on products are truthful.  The information can still be gamed.

JP:  The  information is there, but the question is clarity.  Is it well organized and in a format that consumers want to use (and can understand).  There need to be standards, but who will drive the standards?

Who certifies the certifiers?

DK:   It’s really messy, even if there is an uber-label.

DM:  The key is transparency.  The self -regulation process is competitive.  Competitors will have it out in a non-litigious way as long as there is transparency.  We all are certifying the certifiers by viewing the audit trail and asking questions.

JP:  In theory that is great.  He then relayed a story about his product (completely compostable) being certified.  The (nameless) certifier denied a trustmark because his product did not have recyclable materials. ??It only has leaves and water??

Why is NY behind CA in environmental standards?  Are we losing jobs to them?  Do regulations impede or foster innovation?

JP:  There are simply more consumers demanding the products and regulations

Many thank yous for the moderator and panelist for taking time to speak about this topic.  A special appreciation to the staff and volunteers of SPN & ZCCI for making this happen.

–> Triad of recycling — collection, processing and market development (i.e. closing the loop to products).

3 Responses to “Green Consumerism: Behavior or Myth?”
  1. Thanks for the post Lemuel – Nice job! It was a pleasure being there.

  2. from Matt LePere
    A recording of the March 15th Sustainability Practice Network / Robert Zicklin Center for Corporate Integrity panel Green Consumerism: Behavior or Myth? is now available online at here.

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