Firms urged not to overstate environmental claims Going for the 'green' to win customers could backfire

October 01, 1991|By David Conn

Manufacturers and retailers looking for a new hook for their products couldn't ask for one more popular than "green consumerism," according to recent opinion polls that show more than half of adult Americans purchase or avoid products based on environmental concerns.

But participants at a conference on "environmental shopping" at the downtown Hyatt Hotel yesterday warned that there are pitfalls as well as opportunities in trying to capitalize on the public's growing concern for environmental issues.

Companies that make outrageous claims in the name of environmentalism might find the Federal Trade Commission asking them questions, said Michael Dershowitz, senior attorney with the FTC's advertising practices division.

But companies can lean toward the green in a number of ways that save them money and earn the loyalty of environmentally conscious shoppers, according to participants at the second annual Environmental Shopping Conference, which was sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Pennsylvania Resources Council.

According to a report by the EPA, the number of "green" consumers is growing:

* An April 1990 CBS/New York Times poll showed 74 percent of Americans said that the environment must be protected regardless of cost, up from 45 percent in 1981.

* An October 1989 Gallup poll showed that 72 percent of respondents would prefer to purchase food and beverages packaged in recyclable containers, up from 54 percent a year earlier.

* And in July 1989, the Michael Peters Group reported that 78 percent of Americans said they would pay more for environmentally responsible products.

Recent events show that companies read those polls and respond to what they hear from consumers. McDonald's Corp. agreed to switch from polystyrene to paper wrapping for its hamburgers; the three major American tuna fish processors announced that they would stop buying fish caught in nets that kill dolphins; and Procter & Gamble introduced a concentrated fabric softener in a refillable container.

Those companies didn't act out of any overriding concern for the environment, said James Benfield, executive director of the Committee for Environmentally Effective Packaging. "They are reacting to pressure from consumers, even threats of lawsuits."

In Procter & Gamble's case, the company managed to introduce a product that cost less to produce because it used less packaging. Likewise, a compact disc maker could save packaging costs by putting discs in smaller boxes.

But simply calling one's products "environmentally sound" might prove counterproductive. The FTC will want to know, for instance, if the claim can be substantiated, what "biodegradable" means and under what conditions the product will break down, and what "ozone friendly" means, Mr. Dershowitz said.

"If you made the product better, say you made it better, don't say you made it harmless," he cautioned.

And Hannah Holmes, of Garbage magazine, admonished businesses not to add to the world's pollution problems by taking up more supermarket shelf space with products that require more packaging and then trumpeting their newfound environmentalism in national ads.

Jay Letto, an environmental consultant, cited a recent Roper poll showing that 65 percent of respondents said they had seen "green" labels on products, but more than half said they didn't believe the claims.

General Motors Corp.'s ad about preserving the nation's wetlands concluded with the notion that GM's Chevy S-10 Blazer "takes to wetlands like a duck to water," he noted. And the Chemical Manufacturers Association raised $50 million from its members to launch a nationwide ad campaign to dispel the public's "misperceptions about toxic waste."

"Why not spend the money on research into reducing waste?" Mr. Letto asked.

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