Consumer Responses to Environmentally Based Product Claims

T. J. Olney, Western Washington University
Wendy Bryce, Western Washington University
ABSTRACT - Recent increases in public awareness of environmental problems have lead many manufactures to position their offerings as environmentally friendly. Some practices have lead to substantial confusion about what it mew to be environmentally aware and caring. This paper focuses a critical eye on the kinds of practices followed "because that's what the customer wants" which have the long term effect of eroding consumers' confidence in companies which say they encourage environmentally sound consumption. Several cases are used to illustrate some of the problem areas which have evolved. A research agenda is developed for delineating the critical areas for consumer research relating to this phenomenon.
[ to cite ]:
T. J. Olney and Wendy Bryce (1991) ,"Consumer Responses to Environmentally Based Product Claims", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 693-696.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 693-696


T. J. Olney, Western Washington University

Wendy Bryce, Western Washington University


Recent increases in public awareness of environmental problems have lead many manufactures to position their offerings as environmentally friendly. Some practices have lead to substantial confusion about what it mew to be environmentally aware and caring. This paper focuses a critical eye on the kinds of practices followed "because that's what the customer wants" which have the long term effect of eroding consumers' confidence in companies which say they encourage environmentally sound consumption. Several cases are used to illustrate some of the problem areas which have evolved. A research agenda is developed for delineating the critical areas for consumer research relating to this phenomenon.


During the late 1980's and into 1990, consumers have received formidable input through the media about what constitutes environmentally sound behavior. Marketers, ever alert to trends and fads, have been quick to pick up on environmental concerns and to tailor product offerings to be more environmentally palatable. This strategy, which leads to greater consumption of the more palatable alternative, unfolds in one of two ways. First, companies can and do find ways to make their offerings have less deleterious impact on the environment. Second, companies create ways to reposition offerings by playing up some attributes and minimizing other attributes of the offering. Both methods seek to arrive at a perception of environmentally friendly companies producing environmentally benign products to the end of solving an environmental crisis.

Just what is this environmental crisis, what passes for environmentally friendly, and what makes a product environmentally benign? To attempt answers to these questions is to enter into a world of semantic land mines, where scientific researchers are loathe to tread. In fact, whether for this reason, or others, little scientific research to date has examined the role of environmental issues in shaping consumer behavior, in spite of calls for both causal and descriptive research of social marketing problems as early as 1974 (Wright 1974). This paper then seeks to define some of the areas where the expertise of consumer researchers can be brought to bear on these problems. Several anecdotal cases serve to illustrate these research arenas.


The language of the "Green" movement provides a starting ground for discourse. At the heart of the environmental movement lies the issue of collectively poisoning ourselves through our consumption. The analogy has been made to the lives of yeast in a wine fermentation process. Here, the fermentation proceeds until the yeast essentially pollutes itself to death in a sea of alcohol. The creation, sale, and ultimate disposal of a product, seen from this perspective, can be more or less deleterious to the long term survival of the human species or for that matter to the long term survival of the majority of species on earth. The issues involve the release of toxic wastes into our air, our water supply, and our food production systems. This release may occur at any stage of the process from sourcing of raw materials, through manufacture to distribution, acquisition, use, and finally to disposal. The complexity of environmental issues arising out of the interplay between elements and subsystems of the earth's ecosystem make simple analyses of actual effects next to impossible. Ecological experts faced with the same data on existing conditions often reach highly divergent predictions of consequences. By reason of this uncertainty, environmental defenders would have us take a conservative approach to environmental effects. A conservative approach (not to be confused with the political terms conservative and liberal, which have long strayed from their original meanings) views any action as deleterious until proven benign. This conservative view takes a rather hard line on how we can recognize a product as environmentally benign: "It is not obnoxiously frivolous, like the new electric pepper mill. It releases no toxins into the environment during production, use, or disposal. It is made from recycled material or renewable resources extracted in a way that does not damage the environment. It is durable and reusable first, or recyclable or truly biodegradable next. It is responsibly and minimally packaged. It includes information on manufacturing, such as location, labor practices, animal testing, and the manufacturer's other business" (Dadd and Carothers, 1990). Passing our daily consumption items through such a sieve would force most of us into a life of voluntary simplicity. Certain keywords in the above definition, however, hint toward actions that people might take to lessen their own personal measure of environmental guilt. These same keywords have been appropriated by astute marketers to tout the benefits of certain attributes of their products. Herein lies the rub.


Recyclable, reusable, durable, biodegradable, ozone friendly, and environmentally friendly apply to products in varying degrees. Like food labels such as "jumbo" they are meaningless out of context. As there is no standard definition for recyclability, biodegradability, or environmentally friendly, manufacturers have considerable latitude when applying the terms to their particular offering. Additionally, the application of one term to a product might mask serious problems on some other dimension of potential harm to the environment. These considerations lead to the potential for the erosion of an already fragile trust which consumers place in corporate America. Furthermore, consumers' awareness of environmental issues, and their confidence in their own ability to make environmentally sound purchase decisions, (assuming as the polls tell us that they are motivated to make such decisions if possible ) vary vastly from individual to individual. This variability and the generally low level of environmental expertise leave consumers vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous business practitioners in much the same way that health claims for food products might. In turn, the well intentioned business will suffer additional marketing costs in order to communicate that it is indeed one of the good guys. The claim of being a good guy, however, will not go unquestioned by an already wary public.


In order to illustrate the complexity of the situation facing consumers who would do right by the environment, let's look at a few of the more salient environmental problems.


First, landfills are filling up. It is a fact. They are filling up with municipal solid waste consisting of 40-50% paper, less than 1% disposable diapers, less than 1/10 of one percent fast food packaging, 13% plastics (Rathje 1989). The general public has become aware of this situation as municipalities across the country struggle with problems of solid waste disposal. Marketers, sensing a need to be filled, make claims about their products which imply that using their products will help solve the problem. Two product attributes, which appear to assuage the problem are recyclability and biodegradability. The unfortunate reality appears that most materials in landfills don't biodegrade anyway (Rathje 1989) and that for much of what is theoretically recyclable, the infrastructure doesn't exist to carry our the recycling. In spite of these realities, marketers have created products and made claims concerning degradability and recyclability of products.

In one case involving degradability, Mobil Chemical, manufacturer of Hefty plastic garbage bags, changed its product with an additive which accelerates deterioration of bags when exposed to wind, rain, and sunlight. A prominent advertising claim on packages was that the bags were degradable. Mobil faced charges by a group of state attorneys general for making allegedly false advertising claims concerning environmental benefits of the bags (Smith 1990b). Other companies have added a starch to plastic, which can be eaten by microorganisms, causing the plastic to disintegrate into microscopic pieces. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that in the landfill, this will happen, further, it still leaves behind the 94% plastic in a potentially-more dangerous powdered form (Rathje 1989).

Disposable diapers, whose salient benefits include dryer babies and convenience for diaper changers, have come under fire for the sheer bulk they represent in the landfill. To counter this criticism, brands have been developed which claim to be biodegradable. The problem is the same. If left in a home compost pile and turned every week, they might biodegrade, but in modern landfills the claim is meaningless. Hence one brand, Bunnies, has come under federal scrutiny for its claims (Lipman 1990).

Plastics are not alone with these biodegradable problems, finding company with paper products. Many paper manufactures have added claims for biodegradability to their products and or paper packaging. The FTC has begun investigating claims made for paper products which infer that the products will help solve landfill and disposal problems because they are biodegradable (Smith 1990c). As previously-noted, when these paper products find their way to a landfill, they do not degrade.

The other landfill oriented response involves recycling and the concept of recyclability. Consensus exists on the value of recycling as a means of conserving scarce resources and as a means of keeping disposed items out of landfills. Thus, companies have been quick to ad cheerful admonitions on packages that they be properly recycled. This practice has seen at least two types of abuse to date. The first consists of labeling as recyclable products which cannot be recycled. MacDonald's found itself doing that with coated paper hash-brown containers but has discontinued the practice (Holusha 1990b). The second abuse occurs with plastics, which are indeed recyclable, but for which no infrastructure as yet exists to recycle them (Sherman 1989). Heinz created a large public relations effort surrounding the change of its squeezable ketchup bottle from a seven layer system which contained adhesives to a five layer system containing only two types of plastic, both of which can be recycled (Holusha 1990a). Unfortunately, the layering system prevents it from being purely PET (polyethylene terephthalate) one of the high value plastics for which a recycling infrastructure has already developed (although it is 98.5% PET). Instead, the squeeze bottle must bear a recycling classification of 7 for "other" indicating that it cannot be recycled as PET.

Another marketing action to promote the recycling attribute, has been the emphasis of the fact that some things are actually made from recycled material. The deception here lies in the knowledge gap between what the public thinks recycled means, and what is required by the FTC to use the label recycled. Paper may be labeled recycled if it contains only a fraction of recycled fibers, and even if the "recycled" fibers are only the mill ends created in the manufacture of some finished paper product.

Air Pollution

Air pollution in general and the ozone layer in particular, combine to form a second major area of public concern about the environment. Using this concern as a point of departure, companies have begun to label products as "ozone friendly". Two examples of this are White Rain styling mousse by Gillette and Alberto V05 hair spray by Alberto Culver (Smith 1990a). The criticism here stems from the vagueness of the claims, and from the fact that even though the cloroflourocarbon propellant has been changed to a hydrocarbon propellant, hydrocarbons are potent greenhouse gasses and therefore not environmentally benign.

Non-renewable Resources

A third area where environmental claims have started to appear might be called non-renewable resources claims. In particular, the nuclear power industry has been promoting nuclear power as the environmentally safe alternative to the use of fossil fuels. This flies in the face of the extreme toxicicity and disposal problems encountered with byproducts of nuclear power generation. It also ignores the potential for extremely hazardous accidents on the scale of Chernobyl or worse.


So the problem with the environment is that collectively, we need to clean up our act. We need to buy only benign products that we really need and dispose of them in the most environmentally conscious manner possible, right? So why don't we, the consumers, do all of these things? Is it lack of knowledge on the part of consumers? Is it lack of good will on the part of consumers or firms? Is it technologically unfeasible? Is it economically unfeasible? Clearly each of these are part of the overall problem. What then is the role of the consumer researcher in addressing these questions?

The role of the consumer researcher can be viewed from a process point of view or from a focus point of view. Process here indicates the stage of a consumer in a consumption process which might be acquisition, use, or disposal. Focus here indicates the level of analysis to be used in a particular study from a personal orientation, to an interpersonal orientation and finally through a cultural or cross-cultural orientation. Each cell in the resultant framework holds potential as a research area to further our understanding of consumer behavior in general and our understanding of the special cases surrounding issues of environmental impact.

At the Personal level of focus, we might study the antecedents of decisions to live lives of voluntary simplicity. We might investigate how conservation behavior has been learned. We might investigate the kinds of trade-offs that people might make in acquiring products vis a vis environmental concerns. A particularly promising area for research involves the types and sizes of incentives which might be provided to encourage environmentally benign behavior. The personal characteristics and habits surrounding the purchase and use of previously used goods, or the continual re-use of goods which others might use only once provide additional areas for study. Disposal patterns might be investigated, in search of key characteristics of people or products which lead to less impactful disposal. Here we can investigate the issue of credibility. In a media environment rife with strident critics, what kinds of claims do people believe?

At the Interpersonal level models of social influence might be applied to these environmentally related behaviors at any level of the acquisition-use disposal process. Sharing behavior might be a fruitful area of investigation, to determine conditions under which people can be encouraged to adopt such resource conserving behaviors as passing along magazines and sharing tools. At this level we might look at the signaling ability of the various "green seals" which have come into being and the effects that these signals have on consumers attitudes and behaviors. At this level investigations of community based recycling efforts might focus, asking what works, what doesn't work and why?

Cultural and cross-cultural focuses serve as additional windows onto the problem. Here the roles of regulations and tax policies can be investigated both in terms of their effectiveness in changing behavior, and in terms of their effect on consumers' attitudes toward the behaviors, toward the firms, and toward the government itself. Cultural barriers to behavior might be investigated... Is it "tacky" to sort through your trash? The mythologies surrounding environmental issues need investigation. What are the cultural values? How do they change over time? What mechanism(s) cause the changes? Do any of the lessons learned at the personal level about voluntary simplicity have implications for how some of these values might be transmitted to a culture hooked on consumption? How can people be persuaded to purchase more ecologically sound transportation? A last area which needs addressing and which has alarming implications to dedicated environmentalists is the possibility that the current interest in environmental issues is a fad. A European poll by The Economist showed that "the proportion of voters listing the environment as one of the most important political issues fell by half between July 1989 and February 1990." If the United States follows Europe on this as it has on other trends regarding the environment, all of this current interest might just degrade.

In many ways, environmentally friendly consumption is a generalization of the special case of energy conservation which received considerable attention during the late 1970's and early 1980's (see for example Anderson and Claxton 1982) and smaller, but steady stream of attention through the 1980's. As such, we can look to that literature to find examples of research procedures which might generalize to the broader arena covering all aspects of environmental impact.

The study of the interface between consumer behavior and the environment should prove both exciting and fruitful. Problems of eroding consumer trust through abuse will doubtless prove to be a minor area of interest. We will find ourselves humbled as we explore methods of applying our theories and knowledge of consumer behavior to areas of intimidating global significance.


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