Take a stroll through the aisles in a supermarket this week. In the time it takes you to count to 100, you'll likely be bombarded with as many brands claiming eco-friendliness.
Companies are piling on the new trend, selling everything from eco-friendly baby powder to shaving cream to batteries. And consumers are noticing these brands among the 300,000 new products hitting the shelves worldwide every year. But behind the flashy labels and TV commercials guaranteed to show windmills, solar panels, and endless green fields lies a rotten truth.
TerraChoice, a market research company revealed the results of a study of 1,018 products randomly tested to see if they lived up to their eco-friendly claims. The results were startling. Of all the products surveyed, all but one failed to support their green boasts. The offenses ranged from products that advertised themselves as nontoxic but, frighteningly, just replaced old toxins with new ones that were still banned years ago to, more commonly, products that claimed so-called green status that could never be substantiated.
But the list of lies and techniques aimed at seducing the consumer seemed never-ending. There were hidden trade-offs—one aspect of the product was promoted as environmentally friendly while the negative ingredients' impacts were obscured. There were irrelevant claims—ones that were technically true but unimportant for the planet. There were lesser-of-two-evils claims that were narrowly true but ignored larger environmental problems—the supermarket equivalents to "green SUVs."
All of these falsehoods and obfuscations take a toll on consumers—and it can be seen in Japan, home to vibrant innovation, where residents' trust was put to the ultimate test during a food scare in late 2007/early 2008. Japanese people tend to trust a lot (perhaps explaining why there was no widespread looting in the days after the recent earthquake). It is one of those societies where you still can leave your umbrella unlocked in the entrance to the supermarket—and it will actually be there when you return. But the tradition of trust was put to the ultimate test when dumplings, a classic Chinese dish produced in China, packed, frozen and imported to Japan, suddenly caused the death of seven Japanese and sickened thousands of others. It was the first time in Japan's history anyone had faced such widespread or fatal food poisoning. It created shock waves throughout the country. The sales of dumplings dropped to zero, and the effect trickled into almost every other category of frozen food. Consumers were in despair, unsure of what to trust.
And then something unusual happened.
I noticed this when taking a stroll through a Japanese supermarket. As I passed by shelf after shelf, cartoon drawings of people—like the ones you might see in the Wall Street Journal, appeared on brands. The sugar had one, the fresh salad, the fish—even the dumplings. Next to the head was a name of a person, his title, age, and home address. The title stated: "I’m responsible for this product." Was it a joke—had Japan once again come up with another cartoon craze, or was this the next big marketing trick? And anywhere else in the world, there would at least be a small disclaimer on the back of the product explaining the ruse. Here was a QR code next to every face. It took me to a site where the actual person I’d seen as a cartoon appeared as a real person—in video. He explained how he handpicked the particular product I was holding in my hand. I saw the production line, the transportation, and just in case I still suspected something dodgy about him, I could click on a link to learn more about him and his family.
It wasn’t the first time I’d seen something like this (although it was the first time I'd seen it done with humans). About two years ago, I ordered a luxury version of Kobe beef, a grade even higher than the already fashionable and highly tender Japanese meat. The chef placed a seven-page report about the meat next to my plate in the restaurant. At first it seemed silly, but as the cow's entire history unfolded, along with a detailed list of all the food it had eaten throughout its years of life, the entire history of its family, a description of the farmers family (with pictures of course) and—okay here it comes—a nose print of the cow, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
The dumpling bios grew out of the same trend.
Trust-earning just jumped to another level. People have become so skeptical about fake promises and longwinded explanations that promises on labels have become the equivalent of waving in a darkroom—pointless—and brands are struggling to survive. So real people have now entered the arena—people we can quickly come to rely on, people who are prepared to put their name on the block—and the names and histories of their entire family, too—to convince consumers of their earnestness.
As companies desperately search for ways to promote their products in smarter ways—or as being eco-friendly—a steady increase of cynicism grows on the consumer side. It has not yet hit the tipping point, and the local ombudsman, The Advertising Standards Authorities and in the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, fight an uphill battle to guard the flood of claims made by everyone. In the U.S., governments are even holding hearings to define the difference between genuine environmental claims and empty greenwashing.
Where does it all end? You'd hope the good brands may indeed secure some credit for their hard work—and the liars get punished. In the real world, this could be wishful thinking. Instead, the scenario is likely to begin where my journey ended in Japan, with yet another layer of communication, which may, at first, even convince the most cynical consumers. But over time, this trust, too, begins to fade.
Come to think of it, who knows if that farmer I saw exists at all—he looked convincing, and so did his mother, but didn’t I see him in another ad the other day for chewing gum? There are 120 million people in Japan. I probably mixed him up.
Martin Lindstrom is a 2009 recipient of TIME Magazine’s "World's 100 Most Influential People" and author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (Doubleday, New York), a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best–seller. His latest book, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, will be released in September. A frequent advisor to heads of numerous Fortune 100 companies, Lindstrom has also authored 5 best sellers translated into 30 languages. More at martinlindstrom.com.
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[Front page image: Flickr user richardwitt74]