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Are ‘Green’ Buzzwords a Buzzkill?

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

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With the construction industry abuzz with jargon that makes consumers think “green,” just how much do Americans really like or understand the words that have become the norm in the building supplies marketplace?

That was the subject of a study recently released by the Shelton Group, which is a marketing communications agency that focuses on renewable energy; corporate sustainability; efficiency; and building products.

What’s in a Word?

A team from Shelton put together a questionnaire called Eco Pulse to find out how much people really knew about words such as “low-VOC,” “recyclable” and “sustainability.” They set out not only to find out how much people understood the terms that the building industry uses, but also how much consumers liked them.

© /  Petmal

"Renewable" is a green buzzword most Americans like, according to a recent study by the Shelton Group called Eco Pulse.

In its analysis, the group broke down findings based on three words that routinely describe “green” overall, and then looked at eight words that are more industry-specific jargon that builders and designers use.

While the full report has much more detail, the following outlines some of what the group learned.

Green, Sustainable and Eco-Friendly

“Use the terms ‘green,’ ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘sustainable’ with confidence—they enjoy broad appeal among consumers and no longer carry a polarizing political overtone,” the report said. “But be wary of using them to make product claims, because you may set up unrealistic expectations that risk the ire of both the (Federal Trade Commission) and consumers.”

The report also broke the words down considerably by aspects including political affiliation; gender; age groups; geographic location; race and income. Some of the statistics showed:

  • “Green” was considered desirable by 65 percent of respondents, with slightly more Democrats accepting the term as opposed to Republicans (but the political factor varied slightly based on the way the question was phrased);
  • Men were more likely to like the words “sustainable” and “eco-friendly” than women;
  • Millennials accepted the “green” buzzwords as more positive, but only slightly more than everyone else;
  • Westerners tend to think “green” terms are not so bad for businesses to use, but Northeasterners said they understood the terms better;
  • Blacks, and “minority” groups in general, think “green” is more positive than Whites do; and
  • People who make less money tended to think of “green” terms as being bad for business.

Jargon by Design

Although people who work with environmental spaces understand the meaning of the words they use, do most people?

“Don’t bet on it,” said Shelton’s team in its report.

© /  Kevin Miller

To see how much Americans liked industry "green" buzzwords, Shelton Group surveyed 2,007 Americans and segmented the results for variations such as age, location or political affiliation.

The group studied eight product-specific “green” terms: recyclable; recycled; renewable; compostable; biodegradable; low carbon footprint; net zero; and low-VOC. The group said one of the reasons it chose those terms is that the FTC calls them out specifically in its Green Guides because they “set up expectations that are hard to meet.”

Even when the products use the jargon in a way that follows FTC guidelines, consumers may or may not have confidence in what the product actually does, the report suggests.

For example, when it comes to desirability, the word most Americans feel good about is “recyclable” (78 percent like it). But the word they dislike the most is low-VOC (54 percent don’t like it). The report suggests that negative words such as “low” or “zero” create a more negative connotation about the product.

For each of the terms, the report looked at whether consumers actually understood it; whether they thought they understood it; and whether or not they like it.

Some of the results found:

  • Consumers love recycling, but they get recycled/recyclable confused with compostable/biodegradable, and can be disappointed with the results;
  • Most people do not completely understand the differences between “renewable” and “recyclable,” but they like renewable products and expect them to be good for the environment;
  • Even though Millennials were more likely to have home compost piles than, say, Baby Boomers, most people like compostable/biodegradable but also expect that a product will break down quickly and at home;
  • The more money a person makes or has, the more likely he or she is to be concerned about a “low carbon footprint” and most people know what this is, even if they think that they don’t;
  • Negativity throws out the term “net zero,” which consumers think means they are getting less than what they are paying for as opposed to more; and
  • “Low-VOC” is not well-understood, not well-recognized and not well-liked, even if the majority (66 percent) said they are worried about indoor air quality.

About the Questionnaire

The marketing group said it designed the project with fixed-response alternative questions, semantic differential questions, Likert scale questions and open-ended responses. In April 2015, it surveyed 2,007 Americans using members of Survey Sampling International’s online panel.

Shelton said the study was used to mirror the U.S. population and used quotas for geography, age, gender, education and race. It also said it weighted the data slightly to match U.S. population distributions, and has a margin of error of +/- 2.2 percent.


Tagged categories: Carbon footprint; Federal Trade Commission; Good Technical Practice; Green building; Green coatings; Green design; Green roofs; Green walls; Low-VOC; Net Zero Energy ; North America; Paint recycling; Recycled building materials; Renewable raw materials; Sustainability

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (9/8/2015, 9:26 AM)

It's not surprising that "Low-VOC" isn't well understood by the general public, as the "green" industry and even those putting together this study either don't understand it or misrepresent it. You can have a solvent-filled, smelly, flammable, eye-watering product that is quite accurately marketed as "Low VOC" or even "Zero VOC" because of VOC exempt solvents. The survey seems to think that VOC is directly applicable to indoor air quality. It is not. VOC is a measure of ozone-forming potential.

Comment from peter gibson, (9/8/2015, 11:15 AM)

Yes...another dumb survey. With no useful end result.

Comment from M. Halliwell, (9/8/2015, 3:34 PM)

Don't be too quick there, Tom ;) VOC's are linked to indoor air quality....but not in the way most folks seem to think. Many Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) have the potential for ozone-forming and yes, there are many examples of the VOC exempt, solvent filled products out there. Thing is, in most 1st world homes, VOCs from paints are a minor issue at best....all the plastic, new furniture, new clothes and so on off-gas more of these chemicals for far longer and have a much larger impact on indoor air quality (as well as declining air exchange rates for energy efficiency, attached garages, storage of volatile materials in the house or attached get the idea). Still, I agree, for the purposes of this survey, it looks like VOCs were not well understood by anyone involved.

Comment from Andrew Piedl, (9/9/2015, 10:25 AM)

I agree that people who earn/have more are more concerned with a 'low carbon footprint'. After I arrived back from my weekend vacation in Switzerland, I drove the Porsche (14 m.p.g.) back from the airport (using my phone app to get the AC in the house down to a comfortable 68 degrees before I arrived...), than watched a show about the environment in my home theater.

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