Are you sending the wrong 'natural' message?

Speaking Sustainably

Are you sending the wrong 'natural' message?

Pepsi Natural bottles by Dan H via Flickr

The older I get, the more I look at what I put into my body. A recent trip to the physician’s office made me realize I need to be more conscious of my eating habits — and not just to maintain a reasonable weight, but to avoid some health issues down the road.

So I’ve started shopping for more natural foods, because natural is healthy, right? Well, not necessarily so.

The Shelton Group's 2013 Eco Pulse research shows that 43 percent of consumers think that reading “100 percent natural” or “all natural” is the best description to read on the package of a food product. But while we’ve found that consumers react positively to the word, there’s confusion about what it actually means.

In the most recent update to the Green Guides, the FTC decided not to regulate the use of the word “natural” (or “sustainable” or “organic”). The Food and Drug Administration does not have a definition for “natural” either, as many foods are processed to some degree. As a consumer, it’s not easy for me to tell what truly is natural.

But many of us have this free association in our minds that natural equals healthful. Many companies rely on that to sell their products, some $40 billion dollars worth. You have to work a little to look through the ingredients to find out how natural the food you buy really is. And you still may not be 100 percent sure. Even natural ingredients can have names that sound like chemicals.

A number of lawsuits have companies rethinking the term “natural.” Kraft, Pepperidge Farm, PepsiCo and even Ben & Jerry’s have faced lawsuits from consumer protection groups over the use of the term. Most are retooling their packaging to drop the word, using a different euphemism to generate the impression of natural.

Look at the four companies I mentioned above again. Which one was a surprise to you? If you’re like me, I was most surprised at Ben & Jerry’s. While I know Unilever owns it, I had the perception that the brand is even more sustainable than the others. For example, Ben & Jerry’s has been a supporter of GMO labeling laws. Right or wrong, I assumed a higher level of ethics, honesty and transparency than I did for the others. Therefore, its fall from grace was farther, harder and more surprising to me. Not that I think less of any of the other companies — I just expected more from Ben & Jerry’s. I valued their sustainability story, and now I wonder about it.

If your company is working hard at establishing its sustainability credentials, you must be scrupulous about consumer-facing messaging. Don’t use vague words or terms to insinuate something about your product which may not stand up in court. If you are defending the use of the word “natural” in court by saying it references natural flavoring, it just doesn’t pass the ethics test. And that could (naturally) have a negative impact on your sustainability story and your brand.

Top image of Pepsi Natural, circa 2010, by Dan_H via Flickr.