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Earth to Eco-Labels: Be Consumer Useful or Wither From Lack of Relevance

Everyone lauds eco-labels being put forth by such sustainability leaders as Timberland, HP and Levis for transparency and commitment, but are they really all that useful to consumers? Likely not.  These labels may be informative, but I believe their usefulness can—and must—be taken up a notch.

An eco-label’s greatest value is not its ability to convey environmental stewardship; rather, an eco-label’s worth lies in how clearly it relates green qualities to what I call “consumer-useful” information. Labels with consumer-useful information identify the practical, valuable aspects of a product and put those qualities front and center. Such labels allow consumers to quantify savings or added benefits over the course of a product’s entire lifecycle.

I believe almost every eco-label up until this point has fallen short of this goal – except for the new EPA fuel-economy label, that is. In terms of consumer relevance, the EPA Fuel Economy label sets the bar for a future of eco-labels that motive rather than simply educate.

Yes, this EPA label can be applauded for its highly thorough information on greenhouse gas and smog ratings, but its real value lies in its ability to show consumers they’re saving money. The label’s most consumer-useful information is the data on estimated annual fuel costs and the fuel savings projected over five years of the car's ownership.

However ironic it may seem for a green label, this latter information will likely shift more car sales than the environmental data that's provided due to its practicality (It's OK to sneak green past consumers, folks.)

It's the planets, babies and daisies thing all over again.

If our eco-labels only boast of “planet-saving” attributes, their allure will be short-lived and their impact will be limited. In a marketplace proliferated by vague, repetitive green claims, it is no longer enough to merely explain benefits to the planet.

Watch Jacquelyn Ottman elaborate on this topic during her kickoff speech to Sustainable Brands '11 here.  

Green marketing means enhancing product quality across the board. It means creating additional product benefits and helping consumers interact with their environment in new ways. Saving money, bettering one’s health, or lengthening a product’s lifespan are all consumer-useful attributes that eco-labels must depict explicitly. Only in doing so will our eco-labels engender stronger motivation to change consumption habits.

So, what can other green communicators learn from this?

Live and learn. In my new book, The New Rules of Green Marketing I previously commend the following companies’ eco-labels, but the EPA's new fuel-economy label introduced in May of this year shows me these companies could do even better.   

In the book I congratulate Timberland's Green Index as a watershed mark in transparency, but I now believe it could include more consumer-useful information. Looking at the Green Index with a consumer useful lens make me want to see estimates on how long the boots will last and whether or not Timberland provides a repair/rebuild service akin to Allen Edmonds, the fancy men's shoe maker. Consumers must be able to quantify benefits and relate green qualities to personal benefits.

HP's EcoHighlights label sports a number of laudable environmental accolades their printers have earned, but at the end of the day, consumers might be more interested in how that information translates into relevant benefits such as ease of double-sided printing, life expectancy and costs per printed page.

I initially fell in love with the "Levi's Care Instructions for Our Planet" label and still ultimately congratulate Levi's for including it on their jeans. However, I now believe that consumers would follow the instructions (and the planet better served) if the primary benefit was making one's jeans looked good longer.

Think Holistically

Ensuring consumer-useful eco-data will take a de-siloing of sustainability and marketing responsibilities. Only when consumer, environmental and technical advocates roll up their sleeves at one table will relevant communications be developed. 

Additional information on this topic is available from J. Ottman Consulting’s "Moving Sustainability Forward" green paper. Download it here.

Jacquie Ottman is a pioneer in green marketing, who's been advising Fortune 500 companies and U.S. government ecolabeling programs (Energy Star and USDA Certified Biobased, among others) since 1989.

She's the author of 5 books on green marketing and… [Read more about Jacquelyn Ottman]

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