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Why everyone is confused about what ‘eco-friendly’ actually means

And what companies can do about it.

Why everyone is confused about what ‘eco-friendly’ actually means
[Illustration: courtesy Smart Design]
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Is this product eco-friendly?

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It should be a straightforward question. We’re bombarded daily with news and messages about the environment, often in great detail. We know about deforestation in the Amazon, a dwindling ice pack in the Arctic, and a big patch of plastic garbage floating somewhere in the Pacific. We know that recycling is better than landfill, and reusable is best of all. Given all the information at our fingertips, choosing sustainable packaging options ought to be a snap, no matter what we buy. Right?

But it’s not—not by a long shot. Smart Design conducted research last year into consumer perceptions around the environmental impact of different packaging materials. And one of the clearest findings was that nobody’s clear about anything. There’s widespread confusion about which materials are best for the earth and plenty of common beliefs that are nearly the opposite of reality.

Take aluminum cans, for example. Are they more eco-friendly than plastic bottles? Sixty-four percent of our respondents thought so, and 24% thought they were about the same. But virgin aluminum takes huge amounts of electricity to produce—far more than any plastic—and all that energy has to come from somewhere. But pictures of fish and seabirds engulfed by floating plastic make a strong impression.

So what does eco-friendly mean? Is it about greenhouse gases? Marine litter? Energy use? Some combination of all of these?

To people who specialize in sustainability, a material’s environmental impact comes down to trade-offs between elements such as carbon footprint, water consumption, and waste production. But these aren’t calculations most people are familiar with.

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Instead, we’re forced to deal with too much information, which is often driven by corporate ulterior motives. It’s in most brands’ best interest to pick and choose the facts that suit their needs. The companies that supply baby food pouches, for example, tell us that they’re the sustainable choice as they produce one-tenth of the greenhouse gases that glass jars do, but they gloss over the fact that pouches can’t be recycled. The aluminum can industry, meanwhile, touts the fact that aluminum has the highest post-consumer content, ignoring the energy required to make this happen.

The confusing nature of eco-messaging means that genuine improvements in sustainable packaging can take a long time to be embraced. Our research showed that people didn’t know how to compare emerging innovations in packaging, such as paper fiber bottles and compostable plastic bottles, with existing packages such as recycled plastic bottles. Some thought the newer packages were more eco-friendly; some thought they were worse. This is a real problem as it shows that innovative solutions, no matter how good their eco-credentials, won’t be seen as such without active consumer education.

This widespread confusion presents an opportunity for brands. Companies that make packaged goods and want to be seen as environmentally sensitive have plenty of experience creating strong messages that inspire consumers to act. That’s what branding is, after all. If the major players could agree on standards around how they talk about materials and their environmental impact, consumers would be able to form a clearer, more accurate definition of “eco-friendly.” These brands would be first in line to build credibility with millennials and Gen Z, who care about, demand, and will spend money on eco-friendly products.

In Europe, the EU Ecolabel is awarded to products and services meeting high environmental standards throughout the whole product life cycle—from the extraction of the raw materials, to production, packaging, and transport, right through to use and then the recycling bin. It currently applies to around 40,000 products and services.

This points in a very promising direction. A well-designed label, applied consistently and broadly, can actually help customers make more sustainable choices—in a way that marketing-driven eco-claims can’t.

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So how do we bring something like this to the United States, where different states have very different attitudes toward the environment in general, driven by years of lobbying and policymaking? Well, there are a few examples of similar labels that have worked well. One of these is Energy Star—a voluntary program run by the Environmental Protection Agency that helps consumers understand which products (and buildings) are considered energy-efficient. In 2019, approximately 2,000 manufacturers and 1,850 retailers partnered with Energy Star to make and sell millions of Energy Star-certified products across more than 75 residential and commercial product categories. Crucially, it has flexibility; as technology evolves, so do the standards.

Another voluntary standard to consider is LEED—the standard for “green buildings” put out by the U.S. Green Buildings Council. Where this becomes interesting is the idea of different levels of achievement—your building can be certified, or earn a Silver, Gold, or Platinum certificate. Being able to compare two “sustainable” products or packages is quite compelling, and could even start a race to the top—something that’s lacking now as there is no common language or standard.

Imagine a future where you could look at the label on a juice bottle and understand how the impact of this bottle compares to another. Maybe a few key metrics are broken out, such as carbon footprint, water use, and how long the package will take to degrade if it’s not recycled. It’s not going to be easy—the impact of water use varies considerably depending on where the product is made, and the impact of transportation depends on where the product ends up, as well as how it gets there—but it would be a start.

Consumers are already thinking more and more about the environmental impact of their choices. Eventually, they’ll be the ones pushing for more honest, cohesive messaging, whether through laws and policies or through buying behavior. The smart brands are the ones who will help them lead the charge.

Charlie Paradise is a project director and sustainability practice lead at Smart Design; Jamie Munger is a strategy director at Smart Design; Katherine Eisenberg is a senior strategist at Smart Design.