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What Does ‘Sustainable’ Mean to Consumers?

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5. May 2011

 Apparently, not much—or at least not what you’d expect. That’s the conclusion of consumer perception research performed for the Federal Trade Commission. According to a presentation at yesterday’s SPE ANTEC conference in Boston, the FTC-sponsored research showed that 35% of American consumers think “sustainable” means “strong, durable, or long-lasting.” Another 13% said it means “nothing,” and 8% answered “don’t know.”


Those figures were cited at ANTEC by Sheila A. Millar, partner at Keller & Heckman, the Washington, D.C., law firm that has provided legal counsel to the plastics industry for decades. Millar explained how the FTC has issued “Green Guides,” which provide guidelines for commercial use of environmental marketing claims in advertising and product labeling—terms like environmentally friendly, eco-safe, recycled, recyclable, biodegradable, compostable, and renewable. The FTC’s criteria for whether such terms are used responsibly appear to be based largely on how an average “reasonable” consumer could be expected to interpret such a term or claim. The agency commissioned research to establish such benchmarks. So far, however, FTC has not offered any guidance on use of the term “sustainable,” perhaps because the agency doesn’t find it to have clear-cut environmental associations for a majority of consumers.


My conclusion: Industry is talking to itself a lot about sustainability these days, but the message is not getting across to consumers. Why pay more (as is often the case) to make a plastic product more “sustainable” if you can’t sell that value proposition to the ultimate consumer of your product?

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