Consumer trust is falling. Here’s how companies can earn it back.
Environmentally-conscious shoppers are expected to spend up to $150 billion on sustainable products by 2021, an increase of almost 15% since 2018. Skepticism about conventional products is, in part, fueling this market growth.
The key to engaging eco-conscious shoppers is to make cleaner, more sustainable products easier to find in stores and online. For example, this spring Target launched a “Clean” icon to identify products free from dozens of “unwanted chemicals.” Target’s entire suite of “Wellness Icons”, which include labels like “paraben free” and “dye free”, now span eight product categories. Meanwhile Sephora allows shoppers to easily filter for “Clean at Sephora” products online, find them in store, and to understand what the label means.
Certifications are another route to help customers easily identify safer products. Several retailers such as Walmart, Rite-Aid, and Amazon, are making commitments to increase offerings of products with trusted certifications like EPA’s Safer Choice label.
And the “clean” or “natural” product trend isn’t slowing down. For example, the market for clean beauty is projected to grow 8-10% per year, reaching global sales of $25 billion by 2025. Major product manufacturers see the value in brands that consumers trust to offer safer products and be transparent. Unilever’s acquisition of Seventh Generation and P&G’s purchase of Native Deodorant are just a few examples.
Why are consumers increasingly turning to “clean” products?
Consumers are increasingly concerned about the health impacts of chemicals in their products. And they don’t necessarily trust companies to be transparent or to put consumer health and safety before the bottom line. Though the terms “clean” and “natural” are unregulated and lack standard definitions, it’s clear that consumers turn to these products to find safer options and to avoid ingredients they believe to be hazardous.
We often hear companies lament that the reason this niche of products is growing is not because conventional products aren’t safe, but because of consumers’ “chemophobia,” or the fear of chemicals. Sure, some consumers may be unnecessarily suspicious of a long chemical name on a product ingredient list. And some believe a “chemical free” product is possible or that a “natural” product automatically means “safer”.
But attributing consumers’ concern to a lack of education is misleading and won’t improve public perception of product safety. Consumers are concerned about the chemicals in products because history has provided plenty of examples of harmful ingredients.
For example, FDA’s recent move to ban lead acetate in hair dyes is on hold as one company fights to prove the use of skin-soluble lead in a personal care product is safe. Chemicals commonly used in nail polish have been linked to reproductive disorders and other health issues in nail salon workers. There’s also the consistent problem of heavy metals being detected at worryingly high levels in children’s jewelry.
If companies want to rebuild consumer trust, they have a choice to make: make light of consumers’ concerns and invest in purportedly educational initiatives or demonstrate to consumers their commitment to products one can trust.
Three ways that companies can lead on consumer trust and gain a competitive advantage
Environmental Defense Fund developed the Pillars of Leadership to help companies provide the safest possible products to consumers and communicate progress. Three key tips stand out to distinguish leaders from the rest:
- Invest in safer product design. The best way to rebuild trust is through a clear, transparent commitment to safer product design, accompanied by a commitment to report progress. Retailers are increasingly calling on their suppliers to eliminate and reduce chemicals of concern in their products. Walmart released their original sustainable chemistry commitment in 2013, calling for certain chemicals of concern to be removed from over 100,000 cleaning and personal care products. Since then, several other retailers have followed suit. Beyond formulated products, companies are realizing the benefits of safer product design: Levi Strauss & Co has revamped their jeans finishing process to eliminate thousands of chemicals from their supply chain.
- Champion meaningful transparency. It is difficult for consumers to understand why certain ingredients are in products and to find products that they know are safer. Some companies understand that instead of railing against consumers’ fears, being more transparent about the ingredients they use (or avoid) and how they assess product safety can help assuage these fears. In 2018, SC Johnson revealed their Greenlist™ Program methodology, which they’ve used since 2001 to “better protect human health and the environment”. Before 2018, they had increasingly unveiled the ingredients, including fragrance chemicals, in each of their products. Beautycounter has baked full transparency into their brand from the beginning, providing information on their selection process and why they use certain ingredients.
- Avoid greenwashing. Consumers seeking out “green” or “clean” products present a market opportunity for companies. But cashing in on this trend without credibility behind product claims will result in green-washing and ultimately means even less trust from your customers. If a product contains a “free-of” label or makes an environmental claim, its manufacturer should verify that the product complies with the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides, which are meant to prevent green-washing. Better yet, these claims should be substantiated by an independent third party; even chemicals that are not intentionally added can show up as trace ingredients in a product, nullifying a “free-of” claim (e.g., raw materials can be pre-preserved but the preservative doesn’t end up on the ingredient list on the product packaging).
Bringing the safest possible products to market. Arming consumers with meaningful information and no gimmicks. These are the solutions to rebuilding consumer trust.
For more information, see EDF’s Five Pillars of Leadership.