You Can't Expect Consumers to Know What Green Means If We Don't Know Ourselves

I recently enjoyed a spirited conversation with the members of the Five Winds Product Sustainability Roundtable in Lancaster, Pa., that covered topics as wide-ranging as the development of new standards to lifecycle assessment to challenges members were facing in their own organizations. This is a group of sustainability professionals, engineers and scientists from major corporations.

I had just shown a movie clip of our most recent focus groups -- held about a month ago in Los Angeles and St. Louis -- that showed how confused consumers are about the terms green, natural, organic, and sustainable. Here are a few highlights of their comments:

"All fruits and vegetables are organic since you grow them, right?"

"Natural has pesticides? Could organic have pesticides?"

"It's natural, but it's not. I don't know."

"Green is overhyped. Who can really tell you if something is green or not?"

"I don't have a clue."

The movie elicited a few laughs, but then a roundtable member raised his hand and offered this:

"Frankly, I'm surprised consumers aren't more confused about what green and sustainable mean. We work in the sustainability field and even in this room, we can't agree on what sustainability means. It's our fault that consumers are confused. It's chaos in our own companies and it's chaos in the marketplace."

The discussion that followed revealed that in some companies, sustainability includes the usual suspects like LCAs and energy efficiency. At other companies, safety and social responsibility are also included in the sustainability bucket. There just doesn't seem to be a standard definition, and the result is, well, confusion.

Perhaps that's because of something else we often hear from clients and colleagues that sustainability has no dedicated, internal champion inside large companies. Sure, there are a few Chief Sustainability Officers, but more times than not, sustainability resides in multiple departments: Environment, Safety and Health; Operations; Logistics; Facilities Management. And even when there is a dedicated sustainability department, it often has trouble gaining traction and political leverage. No one knows what the Sustainability Department is supposed to be doing -- generating even more confusion.

And there's plenty more confusion to be had when it comes to discussing eco-labels. Even the very intelligent folks at the roundtable expressed frustration and bewilderment about what certifications to pursue.

We hear this similar refrain from consumers all the time -- they want to know that the product they're buying is green, but they don't know who to trust, what the standards are, and what the benefit is to them and the environment. The result? Yep, mass confusion.

Here's a confession: If I were asked to succinctly define what sustainability is, I would probably have a hard time answering in one sentence or less. I suspect I'm not the only one.

So here's my challenge to those of us working in companies, agencies, consulting firms and anyone else focused on sustainability: To alleviate this big ole ball of confusion, we've get our own house in order before we can expect consumers to understand an issue as complex as sustainability and then to adopt more sustainable behaviors.

As Director of Insight for Shelton Group, Karen Barnes serves as the voice of the consumer for the firm.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user gwire.