It's Not Easy Being Green

November 30, 2009
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Despite the poor economy, many consumers are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products. But according to recent data, more than a quarter of U.S. consumers do not buy green products because such products are not available where they shop.



A recent survey by Opinion Research Corp., Princeton, N.J., found that 77 percent of U.S. consumers consider product sustainability when making purchase decisions. And despite the poor economy, 76 percent are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products, debunking the notion that shoppers are interested in “going green” only if it doesn’t cost them.

But according to LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) data recently released by the Natural Marketing Institute (NMI), Harleysville, Pa., more than a quarter of U.S. consumers do not buy green products because such products are not available where they shop. In fact, among those who regularly look for eco-friendly products at their grocery store, only half find them, suggesting “retailers are missing a significant opportunity to meet the needs of millions of consumers,” NMI said.

And that is not even the most important opportunity retailers are missing. No matter how great their efforts to improve sustainability through supply chain efficiencies, physical plant improvements and other behind-the-scenes initiatives, retailers will not get the credit they deserve unless their commitment to the environment is clearly reflected in their product offerings - specifically, their private label assortment.

Any retailer can sell the latest eco-friendly national brand products, explains Eileen Norton, group marketing manager at Peabody, Mass.-based Webster Industries, but “offering green products under their own store brand demonstrates their commitment to sustainability in a more meaningful way and helps set them apart from their competitors.”

And more retailers are catching on to this reality.

“At the beginning of this trend, retailers wanted to develop a ‘green’ private label program because everyone else had one,” recalls Sylvain Mazerolle, manager of business development for North America at Laval, Quebec-based Savons Prolav, an eco-friendly cleaning products manufacturer. “It was more of a defensive move than anything else.”

Today, however, retailers have a much better grasp of how a green private label program can work in their favor. And that’s having a profound effect not only on the number of environmentally friendly store brand lines now being offered, but also on the way such programs are handled.

In the past, explains Chet Chaffee, vice president of environmental programs at Emeryville, Calif.-based Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), retailers were content to offer green products that mirrored the national brands in terms of eco-friendliness. But national-brand-equivalent options no longer are enough for some retailers.

“We’re seeing more retailers committed to sourcing only best-in-category products,” he says, citing Safeway’s Bright Green private label program as an example. “[Safeway is] looking for products that exceed normal performance on environmental factors.”

Paul Udell, director of U.S. operations for Savons Prolav, adds that retailers want to be known as leaders, not followers. And going a step beyond the national brands is a great way to do just that.


PROVE IT!

But will increasingly savvy consumers, some of whom have been burned by attempts at greenwashing in the past, really buy into retailers’ claims that their store brands are more eco-friendly than similar national brands? Maybe not.

Although the Federal Trade Commission established a set of guidelines (known as the “Green Guides”) surrounding the use of environmental marketing claims, you will not find any government-backed “seal” for eco-friendly products. As a result, consumers cannot always be sure that what they are buying is as green as the label says. To give their customers some reassurance - and protect their good name - more and more retailers are seeking third-party certification for eco-friendly products, and private label alternatives, in particular.

“Third-party certification is definitely on the upswing,” Chaffee confirms. “And probably 90 percent of the calls we get [from manufacturers] come about because a retailer or another downstream customer is pushing for it.”

Udell adds, “Retailers want to make sure that, if their name is on it, the product is truly green and performs the way they say it will. So [certification is] as much to protect themselves as it is to protect the consumer.”

Yes, Mazerolle notes, certification by a third party does add some cost, but bringing a new product to market without it - even if it really is eco-friendly - can be even more costly in the long run.

“Without that certification, consumers don’t know what’s inside the package,” he remarks.

And if they’re not confident that it is what it says it is or does what it says it does, they’re not going to take a chance.


THEY WANT IT ALL

What exactly do consumers expect from an eco-friendly private label product? In the past, Chaffee answers, most environmental claims centered around a single attribute such as recyclability or energy-efficiency. However, today’s consumers understand that improvements in one area sometimes lead to declines in others, prompting increased demand for claims that cover a wide array of environmental impacts over a product’s entire lifecycle.

“There’s a transition from a limited set of attributes to a whole array of characteristics,” Chaffee remarks, citing Walmart as a driving force behind the shift.

The Bentonville, Ark.-based company announced in July that suppliers would be asked to calculate the full environmental impact of their products - information that eventually will be translated into a sustainability rating that will one day appear on the labels of every product in the store.

“Customers want products that are more efficient, that last longer and perform better,” Walmart President and CEO Mike Duke said in a written statement. “And increasingly they want information about the entire lifecycle of a product so they can feel good about buying it. They want to know that the materials in the product are safe, that it was made well and that it was produced in a responsible way.”

Although the index, which Walmart said it will share with other retailers, is not expected to be ready for several years, some manufacturers already are taking steps to communicate additional information to consumers. For example, Mazerolle reports, Savons Prolav recently developed an environmental values chart that details the impact of a product on a wide variety of environmental areas.

“There are a lot of [eco-friendly] products on the shelf now, but consumers are getting confused; they don’t know what to look for to make a good choice,” he explains. “That’s one of the reasons why we’re introducing a chart.”

The tool, similar to nutritional information supplied on food products, allows consumers to see just   how green products are, Udell adds.

A new report from the Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash., and Rockville, Md.-based Packaged Facts reveals that consumers’ top sources of information on sustainability are product labels (33 percent), Internet search engines (28 percent), and in-store information, including store employees, signage, etc. (27 percent).

“Two of the top three sources of information on sustainability are controlled by retailers,” says Michelle Barry, senior vice president at the Hartman Group, giving them a unique opportunity to “pull back the veil” and offer the kind of transparency consumers interested in eco-friendly products so desperately desire, she explains. “Don’t underestimate the power of the retail environment to ... push the sustainability dimension much further along and much quicker than the national brand manufacturer will be able to. That control and the flexibility of the private label system will allow retailers to move into this space quicker and do it better than national brands.”


WHERE TO BEGIN?

Although some “bright green” consumers seek out eco-friendly products simply because the products are good for the planet, Barry says most consumers are interested in green products because they also offer some sort of personal benefit - fresher, hormone-free, lower-priced, etc. So retailers trying to determine which green categories to enter first should consider which eco-friendly products offer the most obvious benefits to the consumer.

According to the Hartman Group, adoption of eco-friendly products typically follows a continuum that begins with products that go in the body (food and beverages) and then moves to products that go on the body (personal care products). Later, it moves to products used around the body (household cleaning products). But retailers also should consider how often a product is used.

“The products we offer - dish detergent, laundry detergent and household cleaners - are major high-velocity, everyday-use products, not niche products,” Udell says, prompting increased demand from consumers, especially those interested in ridding their homes of harmful chemicals.

Norton is quick to point out, however, that if retailers want to maximize sales in green products, they should keep pricing in line with non-green alternatives, eliminating from consideration eco-friendly products that cost considerably more.

In addition, Udell says, green private label products must perform as well as their conventional counterparts; otherwise, most consumers will not repurchase them - no matter how good the products are for the environment.

“You can’t just be green and twice the price or green and not quite as good,” he remarks. “If you’re missing any one of those components, you won’t get private label sales.” PLB


SIDEBAR: A GOOD STARTING POINT

A recent survey by The Nielsen Co., New York, revealed that nearly half of all consumers would give up packaging designed to improve convenience if it would benefit the environment, offering even retailers without an eco-friendly private label product line another way to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability.

According to Katherine O’Dea, senior fellow of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, packaging does not have the same impact on the environment as the product it is designed to protect, but the fact that it is so visible to consumers makes it a good place for green-minded retailers to start their journey.

Despite the important role it plays in product protection, tamper prevention, etc., consumers tend to associate packaging with waste creation, she explains.

“Retailers are beginning to realize that it can be a very important part of their strategy in terms of communicating [eco-friendliness] to consumers.”

New research from the Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash., in conjunction with Rockville, Md.-based Packaged Facts, reveals consumers are most interested in packaging made of recyclable materials (75 percent), followed by biodegradable packaging (71 percent) and packaging made with recycled content (67 percent). But O’Dea says retailers should consider the impact of various eco-friendly packaging options on their particular operation carefully before deciding which changes to make - because what represents an improvement for one chain could be a step backward for another.

However, she continues, one strategy popular among retailers that often results in more sustainable packaging is lightweighting or source reduction, though chains have to be careful not to go too far.

“If you lightweight to the point that the package no longer protects the product,” O’Dea explains, “that’s a giant step backward because then you lose all the embedded resources that went into creating that product.”

Therefore, says Candice Herndon, director of environment and regulatory affairs for Orlando, Fla.-based CHEP Equipment Pooling Systems, retailers should make certain that changes to primary or secondary packaging are designed and tested in conjunction with their shipping platform and other forms of tertiary packaging to make sure they hold up during transit and storage.

“Lightweighted packaging is inherently less sturdy and more difficult to stack than bulkier packaging,” she explains. “If it’s not managed appropriately, it could lead to higher product damage rates, which would negate any environmental improvement gained from reduced packaging.”

Herndon adds that retailers looking to boost the eco-friendliness factor even further also should consider a transport packaging system such as CHEP’s that’s designed specifically to improve sustainability. For example, she remarks, the company’s durable reusable pallets are made from sustainably sourced wood, a renewable and biodegradable resource. And wood from old or worn-out pallets is reused for repairs or recycled into fuel, mulch or animal bedding.

“Pallets aren’t the most glamorous form of packaging,” Herndon says. “But choosing the right ones can absolutely help improve sustainability.”

O’Dea adds that retailers are in a unique position to promote positive change.

"They’re really in the driver’s seat because they’re at the far downstream end of the supply chain,” she says. "If they ask suppliers for packaging that’s more sustainable, they’re likely to comply.”

Add that to a more sustainable transport system, and retailers have the ability to make a real difference.

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