Americans continue to misunderstand phrases commonly used in environmental marketing and advertising, giving products more credit than they may deserve—setting up potential problems for brands if consumers learn that products do not live up to their expectations.

According to the 2011 Cone Green Gap Trend Tracker, almost all Americans (97 percent in 2011, compared to 90 percent in 2008) believe they know what common environmental marketing claims such as “green” or “environmentally friendly” mean, yet their interpretations are often inaccurate. More than two-in-five (41 percent) erroneously believe these terms mean a product has a positive or beneficial impact on the environment.

Only 29 percent understand that these terms more commonly describe products with less environmental impact than previous versions or competing products.

At the same time, most Americans say they are willing to punish a company for using misleading claims: 71 percent say they will stop buying a product if they feel misled by an environmental claim and more than a third (37 percent) will go so far as to boycott the company’s products entirely,
“It’s telling that three years after Cone first conducted the Green Gap survey, not much has changed,” says Jonathan Yohannan, Cone’s senior vice president of corporate responsibility. “Consumers continue to be confused about environmental claims, often without realizing it. This creates a huge risk for consumer backlash. To overcome this gap between environmental messaging and consumer perception, companies need to provide detailed information in-line with the Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines in a place where consumers are making purchase decisions.”

A majority of consumers are distrustful of environmental claims (57 percent) and are overwhelmed by the amount of environmental messages in the marketplace (51 percent). Given this confusion, it’s understandable that consumers are somewhat wary of general claims alone:
• 59 percent say it is only acceptable for marketers to use general environmental claims when they are backed up with additional detail and explanation.
• 23 percent say vague environmental claims should never be used.
• 79 percent want detailed information readily accessible on product packaging.
• 75 percent wish companies would do a better job helping them understand the environmental terms they use.

As corporate marketers and regulators alike evaluate how to communicate environmental commitments and avoid greenwashing, the survey tested which of three common marketing approaches was most influential in consumer purchase decisions. Consumers were asked to “purchase” the most environmentally responsible of three generic cleaning products based on an isolated marketing approach; a certification, a vague environmental claim or an environmental image.

Certification was by far the most influential purchase driver: 51 percent selected the product bearing a mock certification and more than half of respondents (51 percent) believed the certification meant this product was reviewed and verified by a credible third party. Just 30 percent of respondents chose the product with a vague “made with natural ingredients” claim, but environmental imagery was the least influential purchase driver, although one-in-five (19 percent) still chose this product without any other indication it was better for the environment.

“As Americans continue to consider environmental claims when shopping, companies must be transparent to build trust, or face the consequences,” says Yohannan. “Puffery and generic claims alone aren’t going to cut it. Companies will be held accountable to ensure the claims are not only accurate, but also aligned with consumer perceptions.”