Greentailing: What Makes a Product ‘Green'?

October 28, 2008
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Retailers are feeling the pressure to offer greener products, but the definitions and regulations related to popular eco-terminology are confusing.

Retailers are under pressure not only to “green up” operations, but also to offer more eco-friendly products. But what constitutes a green product?

According to Greentailing and Other Revolutions in Retail, a new book authored by Neil Z. Stern and Willard N. Ander, “whether retailers or suppliers are well-intended or whether products are rushed out into the market for the sake of positive environmental relations, it is a slippery slope to navigate.” Products might be considered green for any number of reasons, but the authors say key words and phrases to look for include organic, natural, local, sustainable, ethically sourced, environmentally friendly, minimal waste, carbon offset and non-toxic materials.

But tracing the origins of a supposedly green product can be difficult for retailers, the authors contend. Although organic food standards are well-defined, Stern and Ander point to looser definitions around organic apparel and beauty products, for example.

“You might see a shirt labeled organic that was made with organic cotton,” the authors say. “But what about the dyes or stitching or labeling? … And that same organic shirt may have been made in less-than socially friendly working conditions.”

The authors stress that “intent is important” in terms of a retailer’s green offerings.

“Consumers will see through blatantly false claims, and a retailer and supplier can end up getting burned for a green product that isn’t truly green,” the authors say.

The book, published by John Wiley & Sons Inc., takes a look at the growing phenomenon of “greentailing” - and what some retailers are doing to capitalize on increasing consumer demand for green products, as well as consumer preference for buying from socially and environmentally conscious companies.

Our Take: Consumers are becoming better educated, learning to spot the difference between genuine green efforts and greenwashing. Retailers must ensure that the “story” behind their eco-friendly private label products will resonate with - and be believed by - consumers.

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