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Surveys reveal buzzword burnout among consumers bombarded with sustainability claims

In one survey of more than 3,400 consumers, 83% said they felt misled by buzzwords like biodegradable, recycled and recyclable.

Two consumer surveys were in my inbox this morning, both addressing what consumers really think of the “green and sustainable” label when it comes to the products they buy. I found these particularly interesting in light of the fact that many retailers and brand owners keep saying they are getting rid of plastic packaging because that’s what consumers want.

One survey of 20,832 American consumers conducted by PiPLSAY on Coca-Cola’s decision not to discontinue using recyclable plastics for its bottles found that:

  • 26% of respondents “agree that single-use plastic bottles are better” than alternatives because they are lightweight, easy to carry and resealable;
  • 28% weren’t sure;
  • 22% think Coca-Cola should be environmentally friendly; and
  • 19% don’t care about the packaging.

Twenty-three percent of those surveyed said they think Coke puts profits first. Gee! Do you think that maybe profits are important when running a company? Of course companies like Coca-Cola prioritize profitability; otherwise they couldn’t exist as a company! That’s how companies stay in business and keep providing the great products that people love to buy! Economics 101, folks!

Forty-two percent of consumers surveyed by PiPLSAY said that Coca-Cola should use eco-friendly materials like glass and aluminum for its bottles. These people obviously haven’t read the studies that show plastic is far more eco-friendly than glass, given that glass manufacturing uses more energy and natural resources. A new study came out recently showing that sand, the primary product in making glass, is starting to be in short supply as beaches erode due to weather events, and sand pits found along rivers are causing more ecological damage. Glass also has a breakage problem, causing product loss that adds to the cost.

Aluminum, granted, is light weight and recyclable. But studies show that the energy it takes to dig the ore out of the ground, ship it, process it in giant smelters and so forth actually outweighs the cost of getting petroleum and natural gas from the earth and processing it.

Thirty-two percent of consumers surveyed do believe that Coca-Cola should recycle 100% of the plastics it uses in packaging, something that Coca-Cola has said is a primary goal. Eighteen percent think Coca-Cola should reduce the amount of plastics used per bottle, and 8% just plain “don’t care what brands do for the environment.”

Are consumers burned out by buzzwords used in promoting products as “green and sustainable”? The answer appears to be a resounding yes, given the responses to a survey of 3,446 consumers conducted by OnBuy.com. The organization found that 83% of consumers “feel misled” by buzzwords like “biodegradable” (74%), “recycled” (63%) and “recyclable” (44%). Those were the top three of 10 buzzwords consumers consider to be misleading.

Other sustainability buzzwords that consumers are wary of include carbon-neutral (44%), sustainable (44%), compostable (33%), zero-waste (33%), eco-friendly (26%) and low carbon impact (22%). In fact “eco-friendly” and “low carbon impact” are among the buzzwords that actually discourage consumers—46% and 29%, respectively—from buying the product. Other discouraging words include “powered by nature” (whatever that means), natural (38%), environmental (33%), net zero (29%) and minimal impact (25%).

The most misunderstood buzzwords are “low VOC (96%), net zero (48%), carbon-negative (26%), clean (22%) and green (19%).

It would seem from these surveys that consumers are being so bombarded by “green and sustainable” claims about so many materials by so many retailers and brands that they are beginning to tune out. How many average consumers know what VOCs—volatile organic compounds—really are? And if they know, do they care when it comes to making buying decisions? Probably not.

Cotton was mentioned in OnBuy’s survey as a “natural” sustainable material (7%), probably for replacing retail single-use plastic bags, but how many people have ever seen cotton fields, besides people in the southeast and here in Arizona? When you see the massive amounts of land, water, fossil-fueled tractors, fertilizer and crop-duster planes spraying the herbicides (to remove the foliage prior to picking the bolls) required to produce cotton, there’s not a whole lot of “eco-friendliness” woven into a cotton retail bag.

When asked in OnBuy’s survey if they think “retailers who use green and sustainable buzzwords have a genuine interest in sustainability,” 38% said “no” and 62% said “sometimes.” Not one of the 3,446 consumers surveyed answered, “yes.”

It could be that consumers are finally catching on that “biodegradable” isn’t really and that even companies that make biodegradable plastics recommend landfills as opposed to leaving it out in the environment to degrade over a period of a year of so. Consumers may be finding out that recyclable plastic is the way to go, and that can be done chemically or mechanically (although I doubt many consumers know much about chemical recycling).

Consumers are also probably getting the picture that few companies really care about being “green” or “sustainable.” In fact I’ve heard many people say they don’t even truly understand what “sustainable” actually means! It’s just another buzzword that gives the “perception” of being green, whether that is an actual fact or not. But then how would consumers really know? They don’t, and as these surveys show, many don’t even care.

Image: Argus/Adobe Stock

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