Selling eco-friendly without being accused of green washing requires grounding promises with performance

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Sound and Sensible Organic Certification
Organic Certification (Photo credit: USDAgov)

At a Saturday food market in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, I approached an organic farmer and asked him how I would know whether his products were “organic”. After several assurances that were just empty promises, the farmer said with a smile, “You’ll need to look into my eyes and just trust me.”

A well-known brand of rolled oats is labelled “bio-friendly” and “GMO Free” but when you look at the packaging there is no proof or certification for these claims.

A large fruit and vegetable chain advertisers “organic” produce in spectacular displays but again all we can do is to trust in what they say.

Growth in green products is slowing as consumers pinch their pennies. Light green consumers want to know why they should fork out more for green products. Deeper green consumers are prepared to pay more but are increasingly distrustful of green claims.

A Nielsen South Africa shopper trends survey in November 2012 showed that more than 80% of consumers are open to buying green. But the survey signaled increasing price sensitivity: price was important for at least a third of consumers. This group was not prepared to spend more than the cheapest brand on green products.

Green claims are so ubiquitous that consumers have begun to doubt their veracity. How do consumers make head of tail of terms such as organic, eco-friendly, natural, pollutant-free, low-impact, biodegradable, zero carbon and zero waste?

Consumer research shows that women still make the majority of household purchase decisions. Yet few buy products to save the planet. Women’s real buying motives put their families’ health and safety first. They buy green products for peace of mind and to limit exposure to harmful chemicals.

The meat scandal has added to consumer distrust revealing that even reputable supermarket chains and producers can’t be believed on what goes into their products.

We need a greater level of transparency about the origins of products, ingredients and safety. Green claims on packaging need to be substantiated through verification and even certification to build trust.

What can green product producers do to assure customers? Certification of organic claims, for instance, would help. But certification comes at a cost often out of reach of the pocket of the smaller farmer or producer. Accredited ISO 65 certification set up fees can range from R10,000 to R20,000. Annual audits required to maintain certification mean similar recurring costs.

Yet small organic farmers and producers do have low-cost alternatives. Diana Callear, MD, AFRISO Certified Organic, an organic certification agency, says smaller producers can set up local groups and undergo collective certification. Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS), for example, are quality assurance systems adapted for local markets and short supply chains. The Bryanston Organic & Natural Market in Johannesburg, for instance, has established a PGS with about 15 micro-producers.

For other green product producers and manufacturers green claims may need to be verified by assessing product life cycles and analysis of their entire supply chain.

To persuade price-sensitive shoppers to buy, green marketers need to build a strong, transparent case in their green messaging. They need to tell their sustainable story otherwise customers will not know how they are trying to serve their needs for healthy, eco-friendly and socially-sustainable products.

Small- and medium-sized businesses have many opportunities to profit from the demand for green products and services. But the rewards will only go to small business owners who verify their green product claims and ground their marketing promises in credible and transparent communication.

Chesney Bradshaw is the founder of

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