A study by the environmental organization Green Seal finds that four out of five Americans are buying "green," environmentally friendly, but often more expensive, products despite the economic recession. But, the study also shows that consumers are uncertain which products are really "green."
Green Seal President Arthur Weissman says most people who were surveyed said they are recycling.
"And that's great news," he said. "About 87 percent say they are doing that. But an even more astounding result for us from this survey, which encompassed 1,000 adults [in] a random telephone survey in January of this year, was that over 800 of the respondents - that's over four out of five people - say they are still buying green products, still buying green products in a very severe recession."
But Weissman says the survey by Green Seal and the firm EnviroMedia Social Marketing shows that consumers are uncertain how to tell whether a product helps the environment. One in 10 relied on advertising and one in five said that product reputation helped them determine whether a product is green. One in five said that word of mouth - getting advice from friends - was an important source of information.
Weissman says that is where Green Seal plays a role. The independent group certifies products and services as environmentally friendly through a life-cycle evaluation - looking at the raw materials and the manufacturing process, transportation and recycling of old products.
Weissman says environmental stresses can come at any stage. Paper, for example, has little impact on the environment as it is being used, but requires large amounts of energy and resources for its production.
"In contrast, a light bulb has much more impact in the use phase, where it's using the energy, and where you can reduce that with more efficient lighting technologies," he said.
He says environmental claims are important to consumers and companies are responding. Some major manufacturers market green products and many supermarkets have organic sections.
"And that's all to the good," said Weissman. "But there's also a considerable amount of sort of 'wishy-washiness' [lack character], what we call 'green-wash,' when some of the product claims may not be fully accurate. They may not be even true or comprehensive enough."
Weissman says manufacturers often promote a product's recycled content, but might not mention, for example, that it contains toxic substances.
Green Seal was created 20 years ago to help eliminate the confusion. It certifies green products - from cleaning supplies and paints to coffee filters. It also evaluates businesses like hotels and it is starting to rate restaurants. Those that meet Green Seal's requirements are allowed to use the organization's logo in their advertising.
Green Seal operates in the U.S. market. Other countries have their own green certification programs - some run by the government and others by independent organizations.
Green Seal has certified two San Francisco hotels - the Orchard Hotel and the Orchard Garden Hotel. Stefan Mühle is General Manager for both hotels and says the process of going green took some education. His housekeeping staff, for example, was not accustomed to bio-degradable, citrus-based cleaners.
"And it was quite an issue, quite honestly, because housekeeping has been doing business a certain way for many, many years," said Mühle. "And we have all grown to associate the odor of chlorine, for example, with cleanliness. And it took a good deal of training to show to the staff members that that's really not necessarily right."
He says the staff eventually adopted green practices. The hotels use energy-saving lights and appliances, buy local wine and produce for their restaurants, compost organic waste, donate old linens and towels to charities, and use an energy-efficient, "green" local laundry. The sales and marketing department has gone digital and eliminated paper wherever it could.
Mühle says businesses that adopt practices like these are ahead of the curve and that the business climate is changing.
"Keep in mind that many of the things that are still voluntary these days and will get you a decent amount of publicity and a marketing advantage will eventually become legislated," he said. "And we're already going in that direction here in San Francisco."
Green Seal's Arthur Weissman says that in addition to government, consumers have the power to make the economy green, and they are starting to do that.
"Don't forget, the consumer market is 70 percent of the economy," he said. "So there's a huge amount that can be done by consumers, if they are directed and galvanized."
Weissman says Green Seal will launch a consumer education campaign this year.