Certifications matter more than ever and brands should be promoting them
Suzanne Shelton
Tue, 10/06/2020 – 00:30

I’ve written quite a bit lately about how Americans are experiencing a “Maslow moment” right now. Concerns about the environment are taking a backseat to worries about basic needs — our health and our economy (at both the macro and personal level). But that doesn’t mean we’re not at all worried about the environment.

According to our latest polling of Americans in May, 43 percent of us are more concerned about climate change, 41 percent of us are more concerned about plastics in the ocean and 39 percent of us are more concerned about deforestation and environmental destruction than we were a year ago.

While the percentage of Americans worried about these issues has gone down by a quarter to a third for the moment, the remaining 40 percent of us who are worrying about these issues are worrying more intensely.

So what are we doing with that worry? At Shelton Group, we’ve seen for several years that Americans are increasingly working to manage their environmental concerns via their purchases. About a quarter of Americans, in fact, can name a brand — unaided — that they’ve purchased or not purchased because of the environmental record of the manufacturer. Which begs the question: How do they know a product is green?

Americans are increasingly working to manage their environmental concerns via their purchases.

If we go back in time to 2014, the No. 1 answer by far was, “I read the ingredients/detail on the package.”

So Americans have trusted their own knowledge base as a way to determine what details or storylines matter most — and they’ve trusted brands to be honest with them.

Fast forward to 2020 and while “I read the package” is still the No. 1 answer, it’s slipped a bit. And a significant number have lost confidence in their own ability to judge whether a product is green — 23 percent now say there’s no way to know. But one measure has gained traction that, in fact, is a way to know whether a product is green: third-party certifications.

Third-party certifications on packages

This is worth unpacking further for brands:

  • 87 percent of Americans say green certifications are important when purchasing a product. So certifications can and should be used as a way to validate a brand’s green claims.

But it’s not just about influencing purchases; certifications build trust:

  • Energy Star and USDA Organic are named as the best third-party certifiers in ensuring a product is green (although Energy Star slipped significantly from 2014) and, not surprisingly, they’re the two most trusted third-party certifiers, with 69 percent of Americans mostly-to-completely trusting Energy Star and 46 percent mostly-to-completely trusting USDA Organic.
  • Also not surprisingly, awareness is closely linked to trust. Let’s look at the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), whose label indicates whether a product was sustainably sourced (and full disclosure, it is a Shelton Group client). 52 percent of Americans have heard of the SFI label, and 90 percent of those people say they trust it. So awareness of the label can drive trust in the label and, by extension, the brand.
  • That’s the most important piece for brands: Certifications on packaging/labels engender more trust than a brand’s advertising or press. And certifications backed by scientists would do ostensibly better, given that scientists are among the top three most trusted sources.
Who do you trust?

The moral of the story for brands is that you should use third-party certifications, and once you’re using them, you should promote them and leverage their trustworthiness to communicate your green product story.

This starts on pack. Don’t just put the third-party certification logo on your package, tell the story of why it’s on your package. Back to our client SFI: We often see their logo on packaging accompanied by a sentence that sounds as if it were written by the brand’s lawyers instead of a compelling message that communicates the value of forests in fighting climate change.

Get the compelling message on your package to build both awareness and value in certifications which, in turn, will build value and believability in your sustainability story. (And if you’re an SFI user, reach out to them about this — we’ve crafted an entire toolkit of messages you can use on pack that we know will resonate with consumers.)

Now, don’t limit your efforts to packaging; communicate about your third-party certifications in your social and digital efforts. Ensure people know about each certification you use, tell the story about what they each mean and why you’ve partnered with them. It’ll buy your brand more trust — and your sustainability story more credibility — than simply running an ad talking about your sustainability efforts or a press release with your latest goal announcements.

In our current environment — where legitimate news organizations are branded as “fake news,” actual fake news is tough to spot and Americans are in the streets and on social media demanding change from governments and companies — certifications can be a trusted, trustworthy “spokesperson” that brands, and Americans, can rely on.

Pull Quote
Americans are increasingly working to manage their environmental concerns via their purchases.


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