Public Grows More Skeptical of Brands’ ‘Green’ Claims

If you think it, then it might as well be true.

The big takeaway from the latest “Green Gauge” survey from global research company GfK shouldn’t surprise you: consumers are growing more and more skeptical of brands’ green claims.

The depth of the public’s confusion and distrust, however, is worth noting:

  • 22% of consumers aren’t sure about the accuracy of environmental claims made by brands (that’s a 200% increase over the past five years)
  • 10% don’t know how well companies carry out their “environmental responsibilities” (a 300% increase over the same time period)
We feel like these numbers are too low, because 100% of consumers should be “unsure” of environmental claims made in ad and marketing content. (You can blame our cynicism and our experience in marketing and PR.)

Maybe these consumers are just afraid to admit how little they know.

According to a recent survey released by Cone Communications, 40% of us think “environmentally friendly” means a product somehow has a net positive effect on our ecosystem while 22% think the impact will be neutral and 9% think it’s just marketing speak for “your can pat yourself on the back and impress your granola friends if you buy this”. All this despite the fact that it’s virtually impossible for any consumer product to have an actively positive effect on the physical world.

Some other important numbers from Cone and Gfk:

  • More than 40% of customers who know what “green” claims mean think most are inaccurate
  • 48% say they’re “overwhelmed” by environmental messages and 71% say brands should do more to explain what all this jargon means in the real world
  • 69% say they don’t mind that a company is not quite “green” as long as they admit it, while 78% say they would boycott a company if they discovered such claims to be false.

In other words, admitting that your brand and the environment are more like casual acquaintances than friends is better than making statements that turn out to be false, aka “greenwashing”. This rule also applies to health claims for food and pharmaceuticals: Naked Juice is only the most recent example; Fiji is another, because drinking processed water out of a plastic bottle could under no circumstances benefit the planet you live on.

This isn’t to say that brands making less-than-credible claims to environmental correctness will necessarily suffer. Take, for example, Chipotle. The reason that brand’s new “Big Food” campaign might work is that its claims are so vague.

The FTC released a new “green guide” to regulate marketing claims less than a year ago, but it might be time for a new one. Most customers simply don’t know what it means for a product or brand to be green—and they don’t take your word for it, either.