Selling Eco-Friendly: Choose Your Words Carefully



6 minute read

Selling "eco-friendly" benefits for a healthier lifestyle began more than 10 years ago. The Shelton Group, which has studied the marketing angle to sustainability, conducted a nationwide survey with 2,007 consumers in April 2015 and results range from predictable to perplexing.

"It's not whether consumers get it-it's whether they think they get it," says The Shelton Group's President Suzanne Shelton. "If they thought they understood a term, then they gave it positive ratings-this often had very little to do with whether they actually understood the concept."

The survey asked respondents to rate their instant reactions to the words, and then The Shelton Group tested their actual knowledge of the concepts.

"For example, consumers confuse 'recycled' and 'recyclable,' and they don't have a clue about the term 'post-consumer,'" Shelton says, "but they adore the idea of recycling. The word 'recycle' gives a product a green halo-which is great, unless the product doesn't really deserve it. In fact, consumers may have unrealistically high expectations for products that carry a recycling-related claim."

She says companies might turn customers off completely by using certain jargon, even if the consumer wants what is being sold.

"'Low-VOC,' for example, was a real stinker in terms of consumer desirability-a majority actually gave it a negative rating," says Shelton. "But when we asked respondents how they felt about indoor air quality, we got a completely different picture."

The report "EcoPulse: The Buzz on Buzzwords" is available in full for no charge at

Words That Create Action

Shelton says that certain terms have mass appeal for a majority of consumers.

"But it's important to take a closer look if you're trying to persuade a particular target audience to take action," says Shelton.

"When we applied our proprietary consumer segmentation model to the results, it was easy to see that the terms meant different things to different groups."

The study measured favorability and understanding among respondents, who were tracked based on sex, age, education, regions of the country, political affiliation, ethnicity and Millennials who were broken out in some survey results.

Such information can be deemed valuable to companies aiming to comply with the Federal Trade Commission's 2012 revisions to its Green Guides for marketers. The Guides take a "tougher stance" on the use of green buzzwords, Shelton says.

"Per those revisions, we don't recommend using any of the generic umbrella terms ('green,' 'eco-friendly' or 'sustainable') to make broad claims about a product's environmental benefit," Shelton says. "Without context, these three words can set unrealistic consumer expectations for how virtuous a product really is.

"Given those three terms' strong performance in our testing, it's easy to see how consumers might translate a positive gut reaction into overly optimistic assumptions. Always give specific context that makes a product's [or a community's] particular environmental benefit clear. If you use these words, we recommend you do so as part of a larger messaging strategy or sustainability story that is transparent, thorough and specific."

A Few Highlights

"Green" scored solidly well. It has a strong association with better health; on the other hand, it has not shed its reputation for being expensive.

"Eco-friendly" performed slightly better than "green." More respondents thought it was positive, fewer thought it was negative and more claimed to understand it.

Numbers for "sustainable" were slightly less impressive. Although it was considered more politically neutral than the other two terms-and it actually registered slightly higher understanding ratings than "green"-it received a less positive rating overall. Shelton says that this might be because it's a word with multiple meanings, and consumers generally aren't big fans of nuance. Also, the intellectual overtones of this word may be a turn-off for some respondents.

Consumers absolutely love anything to do with recycling. "Recyclable" was the most popular term tested, with a massive 78 percent approval rating; "recycled" came in a close second at 75 percent.
The term "post-consumer" baffled most, or respondents defined it incorrectly.

"Renewable" was popular, with a healthy 65 percent of consumers calling it desirable. This corresponds closely to people's perceived understanding of the term: 66 percent said they understood what it meant.
Only a slim majority (54 percent) correctly chose solar from a provided list when asked to identify resources that were renewable. Solar and wind were identified by the most respondents.

"Low-VOC" was the only term that actually suffered from majority disapproval (54 percent found the term undesirable). "Again, however, you could predict that result by asking people whether they thought they understood it," says Shelton. "Only 21 percent say they did; the majority remained on the fence (67 percent rated their understanding in neutral territory); and 12 percent say they have no clue.

To learn how savvy consumers were about VOCs, The Shelton Group asked them to identify products associated with VOCs from a given list, and also asked them to rank activities in order of effectiveness that might reduce VOCs in the home.

Words of Wisdom

Shelton says to be careful when using "green," "sustainable" or "eco-friendly:" these terms that perform well may be powerful words to use, but they come with the risk of unrealistic expectations. In most cases, consumers only think they understand the meanings. They actually get many concepts confused, leading them to attribute too many virtues to a given term and setting up the possibility that your brand won't live up to their expectations.

If advertising a product as recyclable, for example, many consumers assume the product is good for the environment. If that isn't true and consumers find out about it, there could be negative consequences for the brand.

Terms that contained negative-sounding words-"low" and "zero"-were least popular. Shelton asks: Could reframing the value proposition with positive wording make all the difference?
Terms that didn't perform well, on the other hand, have nothing to lose. Words such as low-VOC might not make an instant positive impression, but the concepts they represent are actually important to people. There's an enormous opportunity to connect empty jargon with the things consumers really do care about-namely health.

"If your brand can do this effectively, the door to the marketplace is wide open," says Shelton.

Net-zero homes, defined as homes that generate as much or more electricity than they use-have not yet reached mass-market status, mostly because they've traditionally been too expensive for the average consumer to purchase.

Innovative builders are working to bring the cost of these homes down and communicate the ROI effectively to prospective customers. They're likely to hit a speed bump, however, if they rely on the term "net zero." Only 30 percent of consumers said they understood what this term meant before they were offered a definition, so it's unsurprising that even fewer (24 percent) thought the term was desirable.

Paul R. Bergeron III is Director of Publications for NAA and can be reached at [email protected].