It also gives businesses much-needed pricing power.
So, how can your business promote product sustainability in a trusted way?
Sustainability is now a key driver in consumer products industries. A 2021 study found that 61% of core millennials (aged 27-32) wanted to buy from environmentally conscious companies, 58% checked labelling for evidence of sustainability in the form of certification, and 60% intentionally bought items with environmentally preferable or less packaging.
This represents a notable shift from baby boomers (born 1946 – 1964), where only 47% looked to buy from environmentally aware businesses, 51% considered eco-packaging as important and 43% looked for evidence of sustainability certification.
Millennials and Gen Z are also willing to pay more for sustainable goods. This is not surprising as they typically espouse social consciousness and environmental justice. A 2023 study found that 80% of consumers would pay more for products manufactured with a lower carbon footprint. 40% of the responders said they were willing to pay up to 10% more, with 10% saying they would pay up to 30% more.
When looking for products, consumers said they were looking for evidence of biodegradability, a reputation for ethical practices, environmentally preferable materials, local production, lower carbon footprint and traceability/transparency.
Naturally, with sustainability a key decision driver for many consumers, products of all types now carry environmental claims. An EU study found that 75% of products now carry an environmental claim or label. However, it is one thing to make a claim to gain sales but another to actually live up to the claim, and research by the European Commission found 42% of green claims were potentially false or deceptive.
This is greenwashing and it can come in many forms, with environmental claims being either lies, unsubstantiated, vague (‘natural,’ ‘sustainable,’ etc.) or irrelevant. It is also possible that factual statements are misleading or legitimate certifications might be applied falsely to products. This all creates distrust and confusion for consumers.
Many governments are starting to respond. For example, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has threatened almost 700 marketing companies with civil penalties if the claims they make about products cannot be corroborated.
The FTC is also revising its ‘Green Guides’. First issued in 1992, these provide guidance to marketers on a range of different product environmental claims. They have been revised multiple times, most recently in 2012, and the current revision may be issued in 2024, which could result in new activity on the issue of greenwashing.
At a time when consumers are actively looking for products that can demonstrate sustainability, there is a real risk that greenwashing will destroy trust, thereby reducing the incentive to make and purchase more sustainable goods, which will ultimately be harmful to the planet.
Solving the problem
Trust is paramount in any transaction. Consumers need to be confident that when they see a claim, they can trust it has been properly substantiated.
To achieve this, claims must be:
- Independently verified/certified by a third party against internationally recognised standards (ISO 14021, EN13432, EN16640, ASTM D6400, etc.)
- Relevant to the product
- Traceable to allow access to relevant information that confirms claims
Environmental claim certification and verification schemes from SGS – the SGS Green Marks – reinforce trust in consumer products by relying primarily on independent testing against recognized standards to assess and demonstrate specific environmental attributes.
Manufacturers and suppliers can choose which marks are most relevant to their product, in consultation with experts. Products are then independently tested and/or audited in accordance with recognized standards and a technical review is conducted by an industry specialist to confirm or refute compliance. Products that meet the requirements of the relevant claim can then carry the internationally recognized SGS Green Mark. This can be applied to a wide range of products, from garments/fabrics and plastic packaging to data cables and industrial compostable food service ware.
SGS Green Marks currently cover six individual product attribute claims:
- Industrial compostable
- Hazardous substance assessed
- Recycled content
- PVC free
The SGS Green Mark is clear, focused on the claims that matter to manufacturers and consumers, and carries a QR code to improve traceability.
For consumers, the single attribute claim makes it easier for them to understand and allows them to align their purchases more easily with ethical requirements. For businesses, it simplifies the process, making it more focused while helping prevent greenwashing, building trust, enhancing brand image, differentiating products in competitive markets and lowering costs through a one-stop solution.
Author details: Michael S. Richardson, Sustainability Manager at SGS