In an increasingly environmentally-conscious world, consumers often look for reassurance that they are making a good choice for the planet while they’re shopping.
Sustainability certifications, also known as ecolabels, are supposed to make this easier by identifying products with positive social or environmental attributes. Ecolabels set benchmarks for responsible practices within industry sectors and help consumers make informed choices about the products they buy. Energy Star tells consumers that appliances are energy efficient; Fairtrade indicates that the producers were given improved terms of trade for their output; the Marine Stewardship Council identifies seafood products that were produced with sustainable practices.
But with a plethora of ecolabels now available, is it too much of a good thing?
In fact, there might just be too many ecolabels on the market, certainly more than what the average consumer can reasonably expect to decipher during a visit to Wal-Mart or Costco.
A study of 340 certifications by the World Resources Institute found that the proliferation of ecolabels since the 1990s has resulted a highly fragmented market, further divided by competing schemes for the same sector or product. Paradoxically, for an industry that claims to value transparency, it was found to be remarkably opaque. The report noted that over half the ecolabels were unreachable, difficult to reach or uncooperative when asked about core metrics.
Adding to the marketplace confusion, a report by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development noted that many brands, including grocery retailers, have developed their own labels while others use endorsements from trusted but non-certifying third parties.
In the end, it may be too much to expect mainstream consumers to appreciate the differences between the Green Seal, Green Star and Green Tick labels when they’re shopping the aisles. This is reinforced by the numbers: a Boston Consulting Group global study found that only 28% of consumers understand the distinctions among the various symbols for green certification and that many consumers consider ecolabels misleading.
Interestingly, the same report noted that consumers want to buy more green products but believe that their choices are limited when compared to conventional alternatives. Nearly all consumers in the study reported being unsure about what green means and how to tell if a product is green.
With consumers unlikely to spend the extra minutes comparing certification schemes before choosing a product, manufacturers and retailers alike need to consider how to make it easier for consumers to make better choices.