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What terms make consumers believe they're buying sustainable?

The vocabulary of greenwashing

What terms make consumers believe they're buying sustainable?  The vocabulary of greenwashing
Photo by Jeremy Alvarez

Using buzzwords to make a statement on sustainable production has become a marketing strategy for many companies. The temptation of gaining exposure through a single word choice on their labels such as 'green,' 'organic,' or 'eco-friendly' made brands consider the sustainability concept as a cheat code to high sales and brand reputation. Pushing forward glossaries that contain the words 'recyclable', 'reusable' or 'ethical' makes more sense for consumers than using 'PCR,' 'BPA' or 'MRF’ that fall under a more technical vocabulary. When applied into practice, it appears that certain words sell better regardless of their precisely defined meaning. Choosing the mot juste is an art that should be exercised more frequently, especially, in product marketing. Thanks to the overuse of these sustainability terms, consumers began to question the legitimacy of the brand's values and supply chain. In addition, greenwashing and the absence of transparency leave consumers relying on their intuition and imagination while putting trust in the product. Composed, a creative agency, and MaCher, a B Corp Certified company, researched the influence of marketing jargon on four generations of consumers: Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z. Apparently, there are words that each generation is more likely to put trust on while shopping. For Boomers these are: recycled, sustainable, reusable; for Gen X: recycled, sustainable, reusable; for Millennials: green, recycled, sustainable; for Gen Z: recycled, green, organic. 

The word 'recycled' appeared in the top choices among generations without elaborations on the reasons and motivators of results. There can be suggested one theory, which is choosing a term that, in comparison to others, is less technical but also not too vague to define. When analyzing the word 'recycled,' a consumer fully understands that the product means something that has been already recycled from existing materials. Same with the word 'reusable', which means that the product can be used again or more than once, but B Corp, for instance, is not an obvious term. Baby Boomers and Gen X, who come from a more conservative and pre-internet demographic, base their choices on two easily understandable words and one word that is the generic buzzword for sustainable products. While Millennials and Gen Z, who share the tech-savvy mindset, slightly change perspectives on sustainability vocabulary. However, there are more differences in word choice because the Millennials saw the internet explosion first and Gen Z was already born surrounded by the internet. Yet, since the topic of sustainability saw its peak lately with Greta Thunberg influencing Gen Z on the hazardous consequences of climate change, Gen Z's glossary varies. 

Before asking consumers what they would most probably buy into, the question is: do they know what sustainability means in the first place? The Environmental Protection Agency defines sustainability as the ability of humans and nature to exist in harmony while supporting present and future generations. But, appearing as a vague description also for Wikipedia that states the term "sustainability" to be "broad and difficult to define precisely," brands are left with the idea that anything that does good in one way or another to the environment can go under the label of a 'sustainable' product. 

"In Indonesia, due to the planting of "organic" palm for palm oil, it has led to large-scale deforestation due to which around 100,000 Bornean orangutans were killed. So, on paper, you might think you're buying something beautifully grown, but in reality, this "organic certified" ingredient has led to the death of multiple animals, destruction of the biodiversity of a region, and, on top of that, absolved itself of responsibility by adding an "organic" certified logo on the product," said Siddharth Somaiya, the founder of Organic Riot to Allure. Because of generalized terms misleading people, Allure has decided to cancel the word 'recyclable' in the plastic packaging description, referring to only 9 per cent of all plastic produced later recycled into something useful. Also, they will not call "any product packaging "Earth-friendly" (or "eco-friendly" or "planet-friendly") — unless it is nonexistent". To implement other terms, Allure will consider discussing the precise processes with the brand or company. So instead of writing: this packaging is made of 100% recyclable materials, brands can specify that this packaging is made of 100% recyclable materials and does not contain BPA or PVC (or other chemicals that are not recyclable).

The research also reveals that Gen X (37%), Millennial (50%), and Gen Z (38%) consumers are three times more likely than Baby Boomers to put importance on sustainability while making purchases. However, Baby Boomers would say, "If, given the option to purchase a product I know to be sustainable vs. one I'm unsure about, I'll purchase the sustainable option". While 61% of adults view products with minimal environmental impact as "the top marker of sustainability", 60% of adults say that always shopping for sustainable products is expensive. Perhaps, it's the responsibility of the media to educate the consumer on the appropriate terms in sustainable production so that they will challenge organizations and brands to be more specific in their supply chains. Consumers already question brands on greenwashing and transparency because people want to put their money where their trust is. But with the wave of marketing jargon influencing consumer behaviour reaching its peak, its downfall might be right around the corner.