Design Engineering

Are all environmental product claims equally valid?

By Michael S. Richardson   

Sustainability Quality product design SGS sustainability

Product sustainability is important. It’s not only better for society and the planet, but products with proven sustainability attributes give consumers the power to align purchases with environmental concerns. It also gives businesses much-needed pricing power. How can your business promote product sustainability in a trusted way?

Credit: Getty.

Generational differences

Sustainability is now a key driver in consumer products industries. A 2021 study found that 61 per cent of core millennials (aged 27 to 32) wanted to buy from environmentally conscious companies, 58 per cent checked labeling for evidence of sustainability in the form of certification, and 60 per cent intentionally bought items with environmentally preferable or less packaging. This represents a notable shift from baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), where only 47 per cent looked to buy from environmentally aware businesses, 51 per cent considered eco-packaging as important and 43 per cent looked for evidence of sustainability certification.

Millennials and Gen Z are also willing to pay more for sustainable goods. This is not surprising as they typically espouse social consciousness and environmental justice. A 2023 study found that 80 per cent of consumers would pay more for products at a farmers’ market, bespoke items or products manufactured with a lower carbon footprint. Forty per cent of the responders said they were willing to pay up to 10 per cent more, with 10 per cent saying they would pay up to 30 per cent more.

When looking for products, consumers said they were looking for evidence of biodegradability, a reputation for ethical practices, environmentally preferable materials, local production, lower carbon footprint and traceability/transparency.




Naturally, with sustainability a key decision driver for many consumers, products of all types now carry environmental claims. An EU study found that 75 per cent of products now carry an environmental claim or label. However, it is one thing to make a claim to gain sales but another to actually live up to the claim, and research by the European Commission found 42 per cent of green claims were potentially false or deceptive.

This is greenwashing and it can come in many forms, with environmental claims being either lies, unsubstantiated, vague (‘natural,’ ‘sustainable,’ etc.) or irrelevant. It is also possible that factual statements are misleading or legitimate certifications might be applied falsely to products. This all creates distrust and confusion for consumers.

Many governments are starting to respond. For example, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has threatened almost 700 marketing companies with civil penalties if the claims they make about products cannot be corroborated. Though this warning focused on other claim types, it shows the FTC is watching and willing to act.

The FTC is also revising its ‘Green Guides’. First issued in 1992, these provide guidance to marketers on a range of different product environmental claims. They have been revised multiple times, most recently in 2012, and the current revision may be issued in 2024, which could result in new activity on the issue of greenwashing.

At a time when consumers are actively looking for products that can demonstrate sustainability, there is a real risk that greenwashing will destroy trust, thereby reducing the incentive to make and purchase more sustainable goods, which will ultimately be harmful to the planet.


Solving the problem

Trust is paramount in any transaction. Consumers need to be confident that when they see a claim, they can trust it has been properly substantiated.

To achieve this, claims must be:

  • Independently verified/certified by a third party against internationally recognized standards (ISO 14021, EN13432, EN16640, ASTM D6400, etc.)
  • Relevant to the product
  • Traceable to allow access to relevant information that confirms claims


Which marks are most relevant?

Environmental claim certification and verification schemes reinforce trust in consumer products by relying primarily on independent testing against recognized standards to assess and demonstrate specific environmental attributes. Manufacturers and suppliers can choose which marks are most relevant to their product, in consultation with experts. Products are then independently tested and/or audited in accordance with recognized standards and a technical review is conducted by an industry specialist to confirm or refute compliance. Products that meet the requirements of a relevant claim can then carry an internationally recognized ‘green’ designation. This can be applied to a wide range of products, from garments/fabrics and plastic packaging to data cables and industrial compostable food service ware.

For consumers, the single attribute claim makes it easier for them to understand and allows them to align their purchases more easily with ethical requirements. For businesses, it simplifies the process, making it more focused while helping prevent greenwashing, building trust, enhancing brand image, differentiating products in competitive markets and lowering costs through a one-stop solution.


Michael S. Richardson is the sustainability manager with SGS. SGS is a global testing, inspection and certification company, recognized as a global benchmark for sustainability, quality and integrity.


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