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Make sustainable products easier to buy, shoppers say

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Research finds that even consumers who don't consider themselves particularly 'green' would welcome better product eco-labeling.

A question has been gnawing at me ever since I wrote several weeks ago about the flap over the eco-sustainability of ingredients in Johnson's Baby Shampoo: Why is it still so hard for consumers to identify a product that is sustainable? Clearly, tis the season when this matters the most.

It turns out that is the very same question considered by a study conducted in mid-2011 by Ryan Partnership Chicago and Mambo Sprouts Marketing. Consumers who are interested in the green credentials of the products they are buying have grown weary of deciphering multiple labels, although they DO want better eco-labels. The research, released in a report called "One Green Score for One Earth," suggests that if consumers could figure out WHICH products to buy more easily, they would spend more on "true" green brands.

Among consumers who say that sustainability is at least somewhat important to them, 9 out of 10 said they want some sort of universal scoring system to help them make more informed choices. Heck, even the majority of those consumers who are somewhat indifferent to buying green say that they would welcome a sustainability score (55 percent). The views of 802 survey respondents were considered for the "One Green Score for One Earth" white paper.

Said Matthew Saline, founder and CEO of Mambo Sprouts Marketing, with respect to the findings:

"While consumers remain focused on a product's environmental impact (e.g. energy conservation and carbon footprint), increasingly social, eco-economy and other facets of corporate responsibility are being considered, including Fair Trade, cruelty-free and locally sourced."

Sigh. It just keeps getting more complicated, doesn't it?

What should this score look like? The survey found that three in four consumers want some sort of numerical rating system. And, because buying with sustainability IS complicated (see above), they would be fine with the idea that a product might carry several different relates scores depending on the criteria assessed. That would allow consumers to make their own judgment calls, for example, as to whether the energy impact of a given product is more or less important than whether it is locally sourced.

Seriously, green buyers are no easier to segment or categorize than "traditional" consumers.

One other thing: As you might expect, the more independent the rating, the better a consumer will feel about trusting it. Approximately three in four of those surveyed for the white paper said they preferred that an independent organization with no particular profit motive be the one to come up with the scores.

Of course, these are still early days. So any legitimate, well intentioned attempt to make the selection of sustainable products simpler is likely to be welcomed. The sooner, the better.

My hope is that over time the need for this sort of rating system would become superfluous as companies stop needing to distinguish and ALL their products are designed and assembled with people, the planet AND profit in mind.

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure