Going Green: Four Questions on Sustainable Shopping

From toothpaste to wedding dresses, shoppers across the U.S. now have no trouble finding products that claim to be good for the environment.

But the popularity of buying with the environment in mind — and lack of clear marketing guidelines — has made it "much harder for a consumer to figure out which of these green products is really green," according to Northwestern University associate professor Brayden King, an expert on corporate social responsibility and environmental sustainability.

As Earth Day kicks off, here's a look at the latest trends in the "green industry" and how consumers can make the most out of their environmentally-conscious purchases.

What kind of "green" products are available?

A better question might be what products aren't. It's rare to find a product or industry that doesn't offer a "green" option. Seventh Generation, an early leader in green cleaning products and baby items, reported more than $200 million in retail sales in 2012, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Household brands are embracing the trend, too. Nike recently unveiled a new facility featuring technology aimed at cutting back at water use in the textile dying process, while Proctor & Gamble Company began in recent years to incorporate plastic made from sugarcane into packaging for some beauty products.

"Environmental sustainability" ranked third among culinary trends for 2014 identified in a survey of chefs by the National Restaurant Association. And it's not just farm-to-table bistros greening menus. McDonald's recently vowed to source its Big Macs from "sustainable beef" by 2016, though it's not yet clear how the company will achieve that goal.

How "green" are green products?

It varies. Upwards of 400 separate "eco-label" systems or ratings now exist, according to King, the associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. But a rise in "sustainable" products doesn't necessarily mean more items that are good for the environment.

“Putting labels on things that say this is organic or this is environmental friendly has given consumers options," King said. "The downside of this is it has become very easy for companies to put those labels on and consumers are not always savvy enough to know if they’re buying something that is really good at the environment or buying something that just has the label." The Federal Trade Commission also urges caution, saying that many green marketing claims "sound great, but are too vague to be meaningful."

So what's a consumer to do? The FTC recommends looking for specific labels or certifications "that tell you what makes the product environmentally friendly," such as disclosures saying the product is "free of" a certain substance or chemical. The agency has posted a consumer guide to shopping green that includes definitions of commonly used promotions.

Who buys "green?"

Most of us, it seems. More than 80 percent of respondents to a 2011 Gallup survey said they make an effort to adopt environmentally friendly behaviors, with 60 percent saying they either bought a product because it was environmentally friendly or plan to do so in the next year.

The segment of consumers interested in stocking their shelves and pantries with "green" products extends beyond "the granola type," as one report commissioned by the Grocery Manufacturers' Association put it. The 2009 analysis by Deloitte found that people buying green "are diversely spread along all income ranges, age brackets, education levels and various household sizes."

What incentives do companies have to go green? 

Green ones — in more than one sense. Coming off as environmentally conscious can be a good sell with consumers. Research by Deloitte found that "green shoppers" represent a "high value segment who buy more products on each trip, visit the store more regularly, and demonstrate more brand and retailer loyalty in their purchasing behavior."

Major corporations like Wal-Mart have also instituted "green" measures such as recycling programs and energy conservation policies at corporate headquarters that shave operating costs while boosting the corporation's image with consumers, according to King. Being perceived as anti-environment has costs as well.

"If a company is continually being boycotted by activist groups or you see these protests outside company headquarters or you have shareholder activists who are submitting proposals every year to require the company to be more environmentally friendly, this kind of continual pressure can start to influence a company and damage its reputation," King said. 

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