Negative labelling more effective at promoting green products

Most people are committed to the environment, but not sufficiently so to choose eco-labelled goods, according to a Swedish study. Negative labelling – tagging products as ‘worse than average’ – would have a greater effect on consumer behaviour. A separate report shows that green labelling can be difficult to adopt, because of poor harmonisation at the global level.

A psychology study by Swedish scientist Gunne Grankvist found that eco-labelled products tend to be bought by those who are already environmentally conscious. His survey of 200 people, using questionnaires issued over 18 months, also found that the act of buying green products creates a greater sense of commitment to the environment.

Between 5% and 10% of those surveyed said they regularly bought eco-labelled food. Ecologically produced milk, bread, meat and potatoes were primarily chosen because they were ‘good for the environment’ and ‘good for your own health’, although consumers cited other positive qualities, such as better flavour.

Dr Grankvist, from Trollhattan University, also found that should products bear negative labelling showing their detrimental effect on the environment, consumers would be more likely to avoid them. “Eco-labels in use today indicate environmentally benign outcomes,” Grankvist told edie. “A different strategy would be to use eco-labels that indicate negative environmental outcomes with the purpose of making consumers avoid a product.”

Although Grankvist found that those who had little or no interest in the environment were unaffected by either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ labels, those who should moderate interest in the environment were more influenced by negative labels, while the small fraction committed to the environment reacted equally to either type of labelling.

“In general people react more toward negative information than positive,” says Grankvist, concluding that there is greater potential in eco-labelling than is being made use of, although whether negative labelling could be used is a matter for politicians to decide.

A separate report warns that changes in international law, such as new US mercury laws and the impending European waste electronics directive, could make green labelling more complicated. Poor harmonisation between countries also complicates labelling, while some US companies have rejected eco-labelling, claiming it rapidly becomes obsolete.

The report, Green Labelling: Global Guide for Marketers in the New Millennium, finds that potential changes in EU law could make material coding mandatory, while companies unable to remove the European Green Dot on their packaging might have to pay Canadian trade association fees.

The new mercury restrictions passed in five US states will require disclosures for mercury-added products, says the report by Raymond Communications. In terms of icons, Asian laws mean Japan and Taiwan require completely different material/recycling symbols on some packaging.

“Only English-speaking countries seem to even have clear green labelling guidelines, and only the US and perhaps the UK have ever tried to enforce such guidelines,” says publisher Michele Raymond, who points to fraudulent claims in other countries.

American industry has shied away from eco-labels because the criteria can become obsolete quickly, she argues. Eco-labelling is more marketable in ‘green’ countries such as Germany, Austria, and the Nordic countries.

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