Consumer demand is high for products that minimize environmental impact and energy usage, and promote health and wellness. With many self-proclaimed green products infiltrating the market, how can we distinguish a legitimate green claim from a misleading one? UL Environment (ULE), a business of UL, a company that tests the safety of everything from ladders to electronics, recently released “Under the Lens: Claiming Green,” a report evaluating consumer perceptions of green product certifications against claims in the marketplace.

Targeting manufacturers, the report explains the importance of making the proper green claims for a product. For one, there are legal consequences. In 2012, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) revised its Green Guides, a set of parameters to assist marketers to avoid making misleading environmental claims, making it stricter and easier to prosecute greenwashers—companies that practice deceptive marketing techniques used to promote the perception that a product has a minimal environmental impact. And two, buyers have become more educated about the practice of greenwashing. Having confusing or misleading green product claims can hurt the reputation and sale of your brand.

The ULE report analyzes brand perceptions and values placed on certain types of sustainable product claims, based on the survey results of 1,017 consumers. The survey focused on three types of claims: legitimate, certified, and problematic. The report defines a legitimate claim as one that uses clear, specific language that can be verified and meets the FTC test for credibility, but does not have third-party certification. Certified claims have been substantiated by an independent third party through validation, verification, or certification. Problematic claims do not meet the FTC's revised standards and are the "greenwashers" of the study.

The survey included multiple head-to-head comparisons in which participants saw a series of visual comparisons in which a problematic claim was paired with either a legitimate claim or a certified claim, along with a series of closed-ended multiple-choice questions.

Here are a few of the key findings in the report:

  • Seventy percent of respondents claimed to be consciously searching for greener products.
  • Consumers' top three reasons for choosing sustainable products were: conservation of natural resources, health and safety, and waste reduction.

On home improvement products:

  • The top seven claims respondents ranked as most important for influencing purchase of a home improvement product included labeling from five third-party certifications and two problematic claims (one manufacturer-created green label promoting its “clean air formula” and one vague claim: “contains no toxic chemicals”). The report notes that while consumers are becoming more savvy at rejecting problematic claims, some claims still mislead consumers.
  • Certified claims represented five of the top six choices for positive brand impact. Those top certifications included: UL Certified Product Certified for Reduced Environmental Impact, UL Greenguard Product Certified for Low Chemical Emissions, CRI Green Label Plus Standard for Low VOCs, SCS Certified Formaldehyde-Free, and UL Validated XYZ Facility Has Achieved Zero Waste to Landfill Operations - 100% Diversion Rate.

  • Claims that alluded to health concerns—for example, toxic content or indoor air quality—were consistently rated as having a stronger impact on influencing purchase decisions, perceived value, and positive brand impact than were claims about recycled content and manufacturing practices.

  • Three out of four manufacturer-created labels for green home improvement products were marked as “confusing” and therefore potentially damaging to the brand’s sales and reputation.
  • Eight of the top 10 claims that consumers thought were worth a price premium were certified claims.

  • The survey asked consumers what would persuade them to pay 10 percent more for a green product, and the top answers were claims about air quality, VOCs, chemical exposure—72 percent of consumers chose a claim related to one of more of these concerns. Other factors that would justify the higher price premium were, in order of highest to lowest influence: general environmental benefit (43 percent), recycled content (34 percent), renewable/natural resources (26 percent), and waste reduction (21 percent).

  • Recycled content  in home improvement made a more positive impression on consumers than in any other category, even though it was not chosen by a majority of respondents.