Poisoning the Well: Do Environmental Claims Strain Consumer Credulity?

Robert N. Mayer, University of Utah
Debra L. Scammon, University of Utah
Cathleen D. Zick, University of Utah
ABSTRACT - Current proposals for the regulation of environmental claims in advertising and on labels are aimed at protecting consumers, the market for environmental products, and ultimately the environment. At issue is whether environmental claims are currently accurate and well understood. The degree to which environmental claims are seen as credible may affect consumers' search for, belief in, and reaction to such claims. We explore the relationship between exposure to and perceived credibility of environmental claims with data from a survey with 403 adults who are the primary shopper in their household.
[ to cite ]:
Robert N. Mayer, Debra L. Scammon, and Cathleen D. Zick (1993) ,"Poisoning the Well: Do Environmental Claims Strain Consumer Credulity?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 698-703.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Pages 698-703


Robert N. Mayer, University of Utah

Debra L. Scammon, University of Utah

Cathleen D. Zick, University of Utah


Current proposals for the regulation of environmental claims in advertising and on labels are aimed at protecting consumers, the market for environmental products, and ultimately the environment. At issue is whether environmental claims are currently accurate and well understood. The degree to which environmental claims are seen as credible may affect consumers' search for, belief in, and reaction to such claims. We explore the relationship between exposure to and perceived credibility of environmental claims with data from a survey with 403 adults who are the primary shopper in their household.


Public policy makers in the United States and abroad are currently considering whether and how to regulate environmental claims made in advertising and on product labels. A key assumption on the part of those favoring immediate action is that vague or misleading claims will confuse and disillusion consumers. As a result, an important opportunity to harness environmental concern on the part of consumers will have been wasted. This assumption can be found in numerous documents. In its Green Report (1990), a Task Force of U.S. Attorneys General wrote:

The Task Force feared that if consumers began to feel that their genuine interest in the environment was being exploited, consumers would no longer seek out or demand products that are less damaging to the environment. If this were to occur, the environmental improvements that could be achieved by consumers purchasing more environmentally benign products would be lost (p.6).

In a notice of federal rule making (Federal Register 1991), the Environmental Protection Agency asserted:

If national consensus over the use of these terms is not reached in the near future, we face the danger of losing a valuable tool for educating the public and influencing the production and use of more environmentally oriented products. Consumers may come to distrust or ignore all environmental claims (p.10).

In written testimony to the Federal Trade Commission, Walter Coddington (1991), representing Persuasion Environmental Marketing, Inc., claimed that "consumers' distrust of environmental labelling is already high. If this distrust continues, a substantial opportunity to improve the environment could be missed" (p.9). And as a final example, Dr. Brenda Cude (1991) of the University of Illinois, in testimony to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, cautioned that "without guidelines, some consumers have come to mistrust many claims; at best they discount potentially useful information and at worst they ignore it entirely" (p.1).

The common theme in these statements is that there is a real risk that vague or deceptive environmental claims may create distrust, cynicism, and alienation among consumers, with the result that a genuine opportunity will have been lost to harness consumer concern about the environment. Put differently, vague and deceptive environmental claims hinder the effectiveness of legitimate environmental claims, thereby poisoning the well of green marketing.

Is there evidence for the assertion that vague and misleading environmental claims are in fact creating consumer cynicism about green buying and green products? The research reported here constitutes an exploratory effort to examine this question. Data from a statewide representative sample of adults is used to examine the relationship between consumer exposure to environmental claims and belief in their credibility.


Consumer researchers have devoted a great deal of attention to identifying the characteristics of environmentally concerned consumers and examining the relationship between environmental attitudes and behavior. A meta analysis by Schwepker and Cornwell (1991) portrays environmentally concerned consumers as younger, politically liberal, better educated and with higher income, occupational status and socioeconomic status than their environmentally less concerned counterparts. If environmental claims are lacking in credibility, then these consumers are likely to have the political skills and purchasing power to communicate their displeasure to government agencies and firms. (The profile of environmentally concerned consumers shares several characteristics with that of the "information elite," making it even more likely that these people will complain about environmental claims that are vague or misleading.)

Environmental claims could strain consumer credulity for at least two reasons. First, claims could be lacking in specificity or accuracy (e.g., that a product is "environmentally friendly" without suggesting the relevant environmental benefit). Alternatively, environmental claims might be specific and accurate but raise complex scientific issues that confuse consumers (e.g., that a product is photodegradable leaving unanswered questions about exposure to sunlight and time required to degrade). There is evidence for both mechanisms.

Kangun, Carlson, and Grove (1991) performed a content analysis of environmental claims in advertising. They reported that 68% of the ads were judged by non-expert judges (i.e., university faculty and staff without any specific training in environmental fields) to be misleading or deceptive, most often because of their vagueness of ambiguity. Thus, there is at least some systematic evidence that "companies display a propensity to make environmental claims that are misleading" (Kangun et al. 1991, p.54).

The inherent complexity of environmental impacts may also contribute to consumer confusion about and disbelief of environmental claims. A national study of consumer knowledge about the issues raised by environmental claims (Roper Organization 1991) suggests that consumers may not be well informed about the complex scientific issues involved with assessing the environmental impact of products. Especially with regard to environmental priorities (e.g., solid waste management vs. atmospheric pollution) and lifecycle impacts (e.g., impacts during production, consumption, and disposal), consumers are likely not to have complete, relevant information available to help them decodeCand place into proper contextCenvironmental claims.

Recently, research probing the ways in which consumers interpret environmental claims has found a good deal of confusion about the issues raised in these claims. Consumers appear to have difficulty understanding both vague (e.g., "environmentally friendly") and technical (e.g., "photodegradable") terminology (Cude 1991; Environmental Research Associates 1991; Mayer, Scammon, and Zick 1992). Lack of comprehension of environmental claims on the part of consumers may decrease the likelihood of consumers placing much credence in such claims.

A handful of studies has begun to examine the credibility of environmental claims. One study, sponsored by the Good Housekeeping Institute in 1990, focused exclusively on women. Of those women who said they had seen or heard environmental claims in advertising, 43% believed that most of these claims were accurate (cited in Coddington 1991). A second study conducted by the J.W. Thompson agency found that 62% of Americans who recall environmental advertising believe the message (cited in Coddington 1991). Whereas these two studies focus on environmental claims in advertising, a study by Gerstman and Meyers, Inc. (1991) asked 318 women in six U.S. cities about environmental claims found on packages; 22% of respondents said that these claims are not believable, with an additional 63% describing them as only somewhat believable.

Taken together, the results of these three studies suggest that the credibility of environmental claims is relatively low. This conclusion is strengthened by the fact that the three studies differ with regard to (1) the nature of their respondents (e.g., females only or all adults), (2) whether they focus on claims made in advertising or on labels, and (3) whether they ask about the perceived accuracy or believability of the claims. None of these three studies correlates exposure to environmental claims with perceptions of the credibility of these claims. Indeed, two of these studies only ask the credibility question of those respondents who indicate having been exposed to environmental claims. The purpose of the study reported here is to examine more closely the relationship between consumer exposure to environmental claims and the credibility of these claims.

The relationship between exposure and credibility is potentially quite complex. Given the relative newness of environmental claims, we view exposure as preceding judgments of credibility although, over time, credibility is likely to influence the consumer's likelihood of exposure or attention to environmental claims. Although this study does not investigate the effects of claim credibility, there is at least one study that suggests that vague or misleading environmental claims may undercut consumer motivation to buy green products. A national study conducted by the Roper Organization (1990) for S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc. asked a nationally representative sample of adults about eight factors that might account for "why you don't personally do more about the environment." In response to the statement "I don't believe that a lot of the products which are labeled 'environmentally safe' are any better for the environment than other products," 14% of the sample said this was a major reason and 38% something of a reason why they didn't do more. The finding that a lack of credibility in environmental claims contributes to consumer inaction provides a possible explanation when environmental concern does not translate into environmental action. [Alternative explanations include an attitude that environmental protection should be the responsibility of firms that contribute to environmental problems and a feeling that one's own behavior will have little impact in the greater scheme of things. In fact, in the Roper study, the most commonly cited reason for inaction was "I feel that it's basically large companies which are causing our environmental problems and I think it's these companies-not people like me-who should solve the problem." Research has found a positive relationship between perceived self-efficacy and participation in some environmentally conscious behaviors (see for example, Elle, Weiner, and Cobb-Walgren 1991).]

Of course, environmental claims represent only one type of claims about which consumers may be interested when making purchase decisions. But, if the same factors influence the degree to which the credibility of the content of claims is important to consumers as influence the degree to which the credibility of the source of information is important to consumers, one might expect that the credibility of environmental claims would be highly relevant to consumers. Research on source credibility suggests that the source of information is especially important to consumers when they are making decisions in the face of uncertainty (due to complexity of the decision or lack of information) and about products that are important to them (e.g., socially conspicuous, expensive, or durable products). Since environmental claims deal with complex issues about which consumers have limited information but that are important to them both directly and indirectly, the credibility of those claims is likely to be particularly important to consumers.


Research Design and Data Collection

The data used to investigate consumer exposure to and perceived credibility of environmental claims come from a statewide (intermountain west) telephone survey of 403 adults 18 years of age or older. The interviews were conducted during September 1991. Unlike statewide surveys that sample randomly among the adults living in a given household, this survey asked for the "person in the household who does most of the shopping for food and household items." (The results can be generalized to the statewide population, however, by weighting the sample.) The survey cooperation rate was 80%, and the interviews took an average of 12 minutes.


The survey contained a variety of measures relevant to consumer perception of environmental claims. The results for some of these measures (e.g., consumer interpretation of recyclability and photodegradability claims) are reported elsewhere (Mayer, Scammon, and Zick 1992). Attention in this paper is directed at measures of consumer exposure to environmental claims and the perceived credibility of these claims.

There are two ways in which consumers may acquire information about the credibility of environmental claims. One of these ways is through encountering environmental claims and judging them on the basis of personal experience and beliefs. We call this personal evaluation. The other way is through reading and hearing about the judgments of others regarding the credibility of environmental claims. For example, a person might read an article in a newspaper about a federal agency's complaint about the truthfulness of a firm's environmental claims. We call this means of acquiring information third-party evaluation.

Some information sources provide both personal and third-party information while others provide one or the other type. For instance, newspapers and television carry both advertisements containing environmental claims as well as news reports about the truthfulness of these claims. A product label would contain only information that could be used by consumers in making their own assessments of credibility, while an article in Consumer Reports would contain only judgments of the credibility of environmental claims. In this exploratory study we have included measures of exposure to both personal and third-party information, but we have not tried to distinguish the amount of each type of information to which our respondents have been exposed in each medium.

If one accepts the notion that information affects consumer decision making after having undergone some extent of cognitive processing, there are several stages in this process that are of interest. One might focus on consumers' opportunity to encounter a particular message, actual exposure to the message, or even consumers' reliance upon the message in decision making. In this study, exposure to environmental information is assessed in several ways. First, the opportunity for exposure to environmental information in the general environment is assessed by measuring the amount of television typically watched per day and whether the household subscribes to a newspaper. Second, actual exposure to environmental claims is assessed by the respondent's recall of exposure to environmental claims (either in mass media or on product labels) and the respondent's deliberate reading of environmental information on labels when shopping for household items.

Our respondents watch an average of 2.4 hours of television per day and almost 60% subscribe to a newspaper. As these two media are widely used by advertisers making environmental claims, there appears to be ample opportunity for our respondents to have been exposed to these claims as well as to third-party judgments of them.

When respondents were asked if they recalled seeing any environmental claims on labels or in advertisements, 73.1% answered that they did. (Note that the sample consisted of primary shoppers in a household, so these figures might be higher than they would be for a representative sample of all adults.) It is interesting to note that 42.7% of all respondents claimed that they "read labels specifically to see which brands are better for the natural environment." Of these respondents, 53.8% claim to do this "on a regular basis," while the remaining 46.2% claim to read labels for environmental information "from time to time." Taken together, our data suggest that respondents not only have an opportunity to be exposed to environmental claims, but they report recalling such exposure and actively seeking such information.

Although credibility of environmental claims is probably a function of credibility of marketing messages generally as well as credibility of environmental claims specifically, we chose to focus exclusively on environmental claims and did not include a measure of the credibility of seller claims in general. Our measure of the credibility of environmental claims was a modified version of an item used by the Roper Organization (1990). Respondents were asked the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with the statement that:

A lot of the brands that claim to be better for the environment are no better for the environment than brands that do not make such claims.

A slight majority of our respondents agreed with this statement: 6.4% strongly agreed; 48.9% agreed; 40.5% disagreed; and 4.3% strongly disagreed. Only eleven respondents said they were unable to answer the question. Because of the wording of the statement, agreement implies a perceived lack of credibility for environmental claims.

In addition to the measures of exposure to and perceived credibility of environmental claims, the survey included information on basic sociodemographic characteristics, such as respondent sex, age, education, political orientation, household size, and area of residence.

The average respondent was a female (79.0%) about 40 years of age, who had some college education. Typically, there were three people living in the household and their total family income during the past 12 months was about $30,000.


A longitudinal data set in which the same respondents are re-interviewed over time would provide a strong basis for determining whether exposure to environmental claims influences the credibility of these claims in the eyes of consumers. In a cross-sectional data set, however, one can only examine the association between exposure and credibility, controlling for sociodemographic characteristics. Because these sociodemographic variables could conceivably influence both exposure and credibility, one approach to analysis would involve deriving predicted values for the four measures of exposure to environmental claims and then using these values, along with sociodemographic variables, to predict perceived credibility. This approach was deemed overly complex, especially in light of limited knowledge of how to predict exposure to environmental claims. A reduced form approach was adopted in which the credibility of environmental claims was modeled as a function of all four measures of exposure and six sociodemographic variables (i.e., respondent age, respondent sex, respondent education, rural vs. urban residence, political orientation, and household size).

In using four approaches to assessing respondents' exposure to environmental claims, there is the potential problem of multicollinearity. The correlations among our exposure measures show, however, that the items are not highly correlated and likely measure different aspects of exposure to environmental claims. (In fact, only one of 10 correlations was statistically significant at the .05 level.)

Given the small percentage of respondents either agreeing or disagreeing strongly with the credibility question, these extreme responses were combined with the more moderate agree or disagree responses and the dependent measure was simply coded either agree (1) or disagree (0). (Remember that because of the wording of the statement, those agreeing with the statement did not find environmental claims credible.) Accordingly, a logit analysis was conducted in which the estimated coefficients are cast so that a one-unit change in an independent variable produces a percentage change in the natural log of the odds ratio, holding all other factors constant. (Marginal effects are sometimes calculated to enhance interpretation of the data.) Table 1 provides descriptive statistics, including an explanation of how variables were coded.

The hypothesis being tested is that individuals who are more likely to be exposed to environmental claims (whether by virtue of their general media patterns or their reported exposure to environmental claims) find environmental claims less credible than individuals without such exposure. If exposure is positively related to a lack of credibility, then the concerns about missing an opportunity to direct consumer action toward environmental protection may be correct and there may be a need for immediate regulation. If there is no such relationship, then a more deliberate approach to the regulation of environmental claims may be justified.

The data presented in Table 2 show that only two of the modeled variables are related to whether respondents find environmental claims credible: the age and education of the respondent. Younger respondents and less well educated respondents find environmental claims less credible than their older and better educated counterparts. Credibility is not related to the three other sociodemographic variables. More important, none of the four measures of exposure to environmental claims is related to the credibility of environmental claims.




The absence of a relationship between exposure to and perceived credibility of environmental claims must be interpreted with care. There were multiple measures of exposure to environmental claims but only a single measure of their credibility. Thus, any deficiencies in this measure could affect the results. It is possible, for example, that the measure of credibility taps the credibility of all advertising rather than environmental claims in particular. This could explain why sociodemographic characteristics predict credibility while the exposure measures do not.

To the extent that credibility potentially influences exposure, the model is mis-specified. (This is far more probable for the two measures of actual exposure than the measures of potential exposure C television viewership and newspaper subscribership.) Perhaps a model in which influences can be multi-directional would be a more accurate representation of the relationship between exposure and credibility.

Despite the absence of a relationship between exposure to and perceived credibility of environmental claims, the sociodemographic correlates of credibility remain important. Other research has found that younger age and higher education are consistently related to measures of concern about the natural environment, participation in the environmental movement, support for public policies designed to protect the natural environment, and environmentally conscious purchasing. In this study, younger and less educated respondents are most likely to be skeptical of environmental claims. Thus, credibility of environmental claims does not appear to be a simple function of support for environmentalism.

More educated consumers are more likely than less educated ones to seek information about environmental issues generally and the differential impact of various brands on the environment in particular. In so doing, they are more likely to use a variety of information sources, including specialized magazines, lectures and presentations by environmental activists, and informal discussions with friends. Less educated consumers are likely to rely most heavily on the mass media as a source of environmental information. If these generalizations about the behavior of more and less educated consumers are correct, enhancing the credibility of environmental claims, particularly those made in the mass media, becomes crucial if environmentally conscious buying is to spread to all segments of the buying public.



Our finding that younger respondents are less likely to find environmental claims credible also highlights the importance of ensuring that such claims are truthful and relevant. These younger consumers are the most likely to have idealistic motivations to do their share for the environment. If they do not find environmental claims to be credible they are likely to disregard a widely available source of information for identifing the brands least detrimental to the environment.

A general lack of credibility in environmental claims may contribute to some more specific attitudes towards brands promoted on the basis of their environmental superiority. For example, if consumers do not put a lot of credence in claims that a brand is better for the environment, they may assume that the advertiser is making that claim in order to be able to charge more for the brand. Consumers thus might assume that brands accompanied by environmental claims are more expensive (though really no better than) brands that do not make such claims. Similarly, consumers may feel that to make brands superior with regard to their impact on the environment marketers must "take something else away." Consumers may thus conclude that brands advertised as the correct environmental choice may in fact taste worse, be harder to use, or otherwise somehow be of less value than brands that do not make environmental claims.

Further research investigating the relationships between the constellation of beliefs consumers harbor about the environmental attributes of products is warranted. The bases for these beliefs, the sources of information influencing these beliefs, and the behaviors that are ultimately affected by these beliefs are all of concern to marketers and public policy makers. This study suggests that there may be several reasons to believe that credibility of environmental claims is in question and efforts by advertisers and policy makers to bolster this credibility may be warranted.


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