Reading the New Eco Labels

Retailers and manufacturers of non-food items are creating their own seals of approval for earth-friendly goods

In mid-April, Home Depot (HD) began rolling out "Eco Options" products and signage in its nearly 1,900 U.S. stores. Formal groups of earth-friendly products from a variety of makers are prominently displayed and promoted with icons and posters featuring a highly graphic logo, which was first tested on a smaller scale in the company's 155 Canadian stores for nearly three years before hitting the U.S.

Designed by Dallas-based Richards Group, the company's creative agency, the marque is simple and clear: An orange—Home Depot's signature hue—halo crowns geometric silhouettes of a house and a tree. Already, the label is associated with more than 2,500 products, ranging from compact fluorescent light bulbs to organic plants in biodegradable pots. Many, but not all, are verified by Scientific Certification Systems, an independent standards development and certification company.

It's all part of a new trend spinning out from the current wave of eco-chic. Perhaps taking a cue from the U.S. Agriculture Dept.'s eye-catching, consumer-friendly, official labels for organic food, increasing numbers of non-food related stores and brands are introducing official-looking symbols and signs to promote their products. Their strategy is clear: To market their eco-friendliness, and to quickly and effectively communicate how socially responsible they are.

Mimicking the FDA

Since the fall of 2006, packaging for Timberland (TBL) footwear and apparel has featured labels that resemble the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's text-only nutritional label. But instead of stating the number of servings, calories, and fat grams per package, Timberland's label lists the amount of renewable energy used to produce a product, as well as other details.

And on a smaller, more upmarket, scale, at ABC Carpet & Home, a stylish home furnishings emporium in downtown Manhattan (with a store in London), fashionable shoppers find signs and hang tags emblazoned with one or more icons designed by the retailer's in-house design team. These include, for example, a spare rendering of a drop of water, meant to signify that a table or chair is "pure," or free of toxic chemicals.

The company soft-launched the icons and tags last year, and in honor of Earth Day on Apr. 22, ABC Carpet & Home unveiled a new advertising and marketing campaign highlighting the eco-labels once again. Currently more than 25% of all of the Manhattan store's offerings bear an eco-label on their hang tags, says Amy Chendler, ABC's director of social responsibility.

Misleading Customers?

Each of these companies are looking to tap the growing numbers of socially responsible consumers. They have realized the power that the nearly five-year-old, USDA organic label wields among customers (products bearing the "organic" label represented a healthy $14.6 billion in total annual U.S. sales in 2005, the latest figures available from industry group Organic Trade Assn., up 17% from the year before). They want in—and without any governmental mandate on how best to disclose the chemical, carbon-neutral, or other characteristics that communicate earth-friendliness. Unlike manufacturers of foods that bear official labels, they're choosing to do it themselves.

But could such labeling confuse or even mislead consumers, who might believe that a product with an official-looking seal means they are purchasing a government-endorsed product? Jeffrey B. Swartz, chairman, chief executive, and director of Timberland, says that the Timberland tag isn't intended to confuse.

Instead, its familiarity is meant to more easily convey facts about Timberland. "Our label is meant as a source of information. And to be frank, it's also intended as a means to start a conversation," Swartz says, pointing out that any controversy that might arise is a risk that he and Timberland are willing to take. The idea is to get consumers talking about socially responsible, eco-friendly products.

Admitting Imperfection

"If shoppers want to look at us, read our label and see that inherently there are toxins in our products, and that a fair amount of energy is consumed when making these products, I say, 'good. We admit that we are imperfect,'" Swartz says.

Bevan Bloemendaal, senior director of global creative services at Timberland, who oversaw the design of the tag, recalls that when Swartz was explaining his ideas he would often be holding a bottle of Honest Tea—a favorite, USDA-certified, organic drink—with the FDA's Nutrition Facts label facing the designers. Or Swartz would bluntly say he thought the nutritional label was a good model.

"It didn't take long before we finally realized the obvious, that the medium already existed and was accepted by the consumer as a place to look for information on the products they were purchasing," writes Bloemendaal in an e-mail.

Blunt Can Be Beautiful

Because Timberland's goal was to emphasize its identity as a socially responsible company, its intentionally derivative approach to appropriating the FDA's nutrition label was smart, according to Rob Giampietro, a partner in New York-based graphic design studio Giampetro + Smith.

"To explain what a serious label stands for is best. Think of the unglamorous cigarette box warning. A label can be beautiful in its blunt communicativeness. If an eco-label or logo looks institutional, it can help a shopper realize it's not purely marketing," says Giampietro. To look serious, he says, "it's best [for the label] to look like it's not loved by a designer. The more ugly and compliant it is, the more shoppers will see it as external." In other words, an ostensibly objective, or trustworthy, label.

But while graphic designers, brand strategists, and consumer advocates alike agree that a proliferation of socially responsible corporations is healthy news for the environment, they're also cautioning that shoppers be wary or at least well-informed of the claims that each new, brand-specific eco-label conveys.

Do Your Eco-Homework

"Eco labels are a great start. Companies need to educate consumers even if there's no government mandate—there's an ethical responsibility to do so," says Giampietro. "But there's also a morality of data. The brand needs to be trusted. They need to have completed research. And the label needs to add value to the customer experience." In other words, an eye-catching logo is simply not enough.

"We advise consumers to do their homework before they go shopping. You can't rely on a pretty logo or label for meaningful information about eco-friendliness," agrees Urvashi Rangan, a PhD in environmental health sciences and senior scientist and policy analyst at Consumers Union, a non-profit advocacy group. "There's been a burst of new eco-labels in the last year, especially since An Inconvenient Truth came out."

"If you see something vague, look for additional information" says Rangan, who is also the director of the Web site, which features a free, searchable database of 150 labels that claim its products are eco-friendly. The site includes a chart-like report card for each label, in which the Consumers Union answers a series of questions, such as whether a label was developed with broad public and industry input. So far, individual company labels such as those from Timberland, Home Depot, and ABC Carpet & Home aren't yet in the database. "We need to add them," Rangan says.

May the Best Brand Win

Marty Neumeier, founder and president of Neutron, a San Francisco-based firm specializing in brand collaboration, also cautions that the most effective eco-label can't fix a larger branding or marketing problem. He cites Home Depot as an example. "I get the sense that they're trying to use [the Eco Options icon] as a brand differentiator and as a distraction from a much bigger problem—a confusing customer experience. They may fail on both counts," says Neumeier. "As a differentiator, the eco-label concept isn't ownable in the long term, and adding one more 'feature' to an already confusing environment may not improve the customer experience."

So far, Eco Options products seem to be selling well, at least according to information posted on the new Eco Options section of Home Depot's Web site. There a ticker announces that 354,105,804 items now categorized as Eco Options were sold in 2006 in U.S. Home Depot stores. Of course this is before they were officially classified as such. But the numbers indicate the popularity of earth-friendly products at Home Depot, even before they were slapped with a visible endorsement from the company.

While an eye-catching label that emphasizes a brand's eco-friendly objectives might help draw consumers, it isn't a panacea that can transform just any company into a socially responsible one. Companies such as Home Depot and Timberland have histories of earth-friendly practices. In 1991 Home Depot published its list of "environmental principles," later adopted by the National Retail Hardware Assn., an industry trade group.

And Timberland has hosted a decade's worth of Earth Day volunteer events to help clean natural environments such as the San Bernardino National Forest, and has pushed other initiatives such as a current effort to become carbon neutral by 2010. Keeping corporate philosophies consistent and transparent, rather than relying solely on visually compelling icons and tags, is ultimately what will draw consumers and keep them loyal to a socially responsible brand.

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