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An important rule in marketing green products is to minimize the sacrifices that consumers must make in order to buy and use 'green' products. Improvements must be substantive, and if possible backed by hard facts.

Different environmental attributes are important in different product categories. Nevertheless, consumers generally feel that the more attributes there are, the better. A good strategy is to offer environmental improvements in several categories at the same time, such as water pollution, solid waste, and manufacturing processes.

When consumers are faced with a trade-off between product attributes, the environment almost always loses. Many products that require consumers to make such trade-offs have failed to establish themselves in the marketplace.

To succeed, eco-entrepreneurs must not neglect the traditional values of price, quality, convenience and availability.

  • Price: No matter what consumers say, few will pay extra for greener products. Premiums of more than around 2% can be charged only if the consumer perceives additional product value.
  • Quality: Many people think 'green' products will be less effective than existing brands, and are even less likely to sacrifice quality than they are price. Assurances of quality are absolutely essential, and must be communicated convincingly. Quality is judged on many features, including performance, look, feel, fit, comfort, and durability.
  • Convenience: Only minimal inconvenience is tolerated by consumers of green products.
  • Availability: Very few consumers will go out of their way to buy green products. In a 1990 poll, 58% of respondents cited poor product availability as a reason for not purchasing more green products.

So-called 'deep-green' markets are too small to attract major competition, which may be an important factor in planning long-term strategy. Recent estimates have put the size of this market at about 2% of North American consumers. These individuals will often pay higher prices or sacrifice product performance for environmental improvements.

If you decide to target this market,

  • Your products must be significantly better, in environmental terms, than the competition, or else you will be viewed as a hypocrite as well as losing the sale;
  • You must provide clear, persuasive and comprehensive information on what sets your product apart environmentally;
  • You should monitor competitors to see whether they are developing products almost as green as yours, but without the price and quality trade-offs. You can keep ahead of the green development curve by minimising the sacrifices required to purchase or use your product.

Both traditional and 'green' companies are beginning to offer consumers environmental improvements that do not involve a price premium or a loss of quality.

Sharp-eyed marketing people in the late 1980s discovered a new advertising ploy: the green claim. In 1993, some 13% of new products introduced in the US made some kind of environmental claim. But some claims were misleading and served to confuse, rather than assist, consumers. Canadian consumers report that their distrust of green product claims inhibited their purchases of allegedly 'green' products.

In July 1992, the US Federal Trade Commission issued guidelines on the use of such terms as 'degradable', 'compostable', 'recyclable', 'recycled content', 'refillable' and 'ozone safe'.

The message is clear: in order to be successful, products and services must be credible to cynical and confused consumers. One way to gain credibility is to obtain certification from one of the following organizations:

  • Scientific Certification Systems of Oakland, California was founded in 1984 to measure pesticide residues in agricultural products. It now certifies a wide array of environmental and food safety claims. Under its Environmental Claims Certification Program, introduced in 1990, SCS has certified single-criteria claims such as 'recycled content,' 'biodegradable', 'water-efficient', and 'no VOCs' for more than 1,100 products.

The SCS 'Environmental Report Card', launched in 1993, provides detailed information about the performance and environmental impacts of a product, based on a life-cycle, cradle-to-grave study of the product and its packaging. The impacts listed on the card include resources depleted, energy consumed, pollution released into air and water, and solid waste generated.

Among the products for which report cards have been commissioned, at a cost of up to $30,000 each, are American Plastics 'IronHold' trash bags; 'PlastiKote' enamel paints; Benckiser 'EarthRite' household cleaning products; and 'TreeFree' recycled napkins, paper towels, and tissues.

The SCS Forest Conservation Program, launched in 1991, uses an indexing system to rank forest management practices.

To raise consumers' awareness of the environmental impact of their own daily activities, a 'Personal Environmental Report Card' has been developed. The evaluation includes commuting distances and transportation methods, home energy and water use, and recycling habits.

  • Green Seal is a US-based, non-profit environmental labelling organization which awards a seal of approval to products that are found to cause significantly less harm to the environment than other, similar products. Green Seal develops environmental standards for consumer products through a public review process involving manufacturers, environmentalists, consumers and government agencies.

Products are Green Seal certified only after rigorous testing and evaluation. The primary testing contractor is Underwriters Laboratories. The Green Seal Certification Mark - a blue globe with a green check - assures consumers that products meet stringent environmental standards.

Green Seal standards take into consideration each product's environmental impact, measured over the whole life cycle. By setting standards for environmentally preferable products, Green Seal is designed to reduce air and water pollution, reduce the wastage of energy and natural resources, curb greenhouse gas emissions, prevent toxic contamination, and protect wildlife.

Green Seal has developed standards for more than 50 product categories, including paints, household cleaners, paper products, water-efficient fixtures, lighting, windows, and major household appliances.

  • Canada's government-sponsored 'Environmental Choice' program started by evaluating single-criteria product claims, but has subsequently adopted a life-cycle review process. Certified items carry the EcoLogo - three doves intertwined to form the shape of a maple leaf.

The logo helps consumers identify products that, in the course of their life cycle, improve energy efficiency, use recycled or recyclable materials, and minimize the use of hazardous substances. A 16-member national board provides advice on the development of environmental criteria, and an independent technical agency assists in the verification and testing of products and services.

Lists of certified brand name products and their manufacturers are made available for consumers.

Product categories evaluated to date include re-refined motor oil, recycled fine paper, water-based paints, recycled newsprint, thermal insulation, ethanol-blended gasoline, reusable diapers, alkaline batteries, composters for residential waste, water-saving products, laundry detergents, domestic water heaters, toner cartridges, energy-efficient lamps, and adhesives.

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