Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Thinking Outside of the (Mail) Box: How Sustainability Can Drive Innovation

One of the most exciting things about corporate sustainability is how it drives innovation.  The concept of sustainability implies the long-term, so companies that embrace it as a core value must think beyond the next fiscal year.  It is this push to predict future needs of both people and planet that has spurred some enormously innovative products and services.  The examples of this are endless: think concentrated laundry detergent, car share services, and CFLs.

It is a known fact that companies need to know how to periodically pivot their business models to ensure continued success. For instance, Amazon and Barnes and Noble remained ahead of the curve in their shift from traditional print books to e-books.  Borders, on the other hand, was late in catching on to this trend and developing its own e-reader.  The company was unable to compensate for this oversight and as a result, filed for bankruptcy in 2011.  (Granted, whether or not these e-readers are actually better for the environment than traditional printed books is another story.)

So when companies like the United States Postal Service stick their heels in the ground and choose tradition over innovation at the expense of the environment, it raises an eyebrow.  A few months back, the USPS ran this commercial, in which it makes the absurd claim that snail mail is somehow more secure and convenient than electronic mail.  The ad seems like a desperate attempt by the USPS to promote a service that is becoming more obsolete each day.  If the USPS really embraced sustainability, it would view the shifting needs of customers as an opportunity to leverage its well-respected brand and create new services that reduce paper waste and reliance on fossil fuels.  For instance, the USPS could create an electronic equivalent of a certified letter or offer an email platform that provides an extra level of security backed by the company.  Clearly, the USPS has an amazing opportunity to embrace sustainability and innovation, but it may suffer the same fate as Borders if it remains stagnant in our ever-changing world.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Employee Engagement: Is It Just a Myth?

I was at an event on CSR at Social Media Week where Susan MacPhearson of Fenton said,
"employees are the single largest untapped resource in the execution of CSR strategy". 
This statement really stuck with me, and after dwelling on it for weeks, I realized how true it really is.

Companies often boast about their level of employee participation and commitment to CSR initiatives. However, to what extent are employees actually being engaged? Think about some of the most environmentally and socially responsible companies (for me, Nike and Timberland come to mind). Now think about the last time you supported these companies by purchasing a product from one of their stores. Were the employees who helped you aware of the environmental attributes of the products they sold? If you asked an average Nike employee about their Considered Design initiative, how would they respond? Chances are, the average employee will be grossly uninformed about such programs.

In fact, I know first hand that knowledge of CSR initiatives is not "trickling down" from the corporate office to the regional sales floor.  As a lead cashier at a major retail store, I had no idea that the company had made any commitment to CSR or published a CSR report until I googled it.  Our atrocious habit of throwing away 500+ plastic hangers a day made me believe sustainability was a low priority for the company.  Ironically enough, the company's CSR report states, "We are committed to incorporating sustainability into all aspects of our operations and have a fundamental responsibility to minimize our impact on the environment".  Moreover, it says, "Associates at all levels of our organization offer their time, enthusiasm and energy, as well as personal and Company resources in support of many worthy causes through a variety of local, national and international organizations."  So why am I not witnessing any of this myself?  The company's bold commitment to CSR is something to be shouted from the rooftops, yet even employees are unaware.

This lack of awareness is not only plaguing retail companies. A few months ago, I posted about this topic after I attended a networking event at NYU:
I attended a program through NYU’s Wasserman Center today and had the opportunity to meet and network with employees and recruiters from big name companies like Deloitte, Morgan Stanley, IBM, AOL, Macy’s, Black Rock, and Barclays. Since I am looking to get into the CSR field, I asked them what their respective companies were doing in this space. I was a bit disappointed to find that most of them were unable to speak to anything significant their companies have achieved in terms of CSR. I happen to know that most of these companies are taking sustainability concerns into account to some degree, with the exception of Barclays, who will be receiving a Public Eye ”Award” this month. Therefore, this lack of awareness points to a significant problem.
So why is this happening?  Why do employees (especially those, like myself, who are interested in participating in CSR initiatives!) remain an untapped resource?  I'd love to hear your thoughts about how to solve such a problem!  

Friday, March 30, 2012

How can companies educate the public on environmental issues?

Environmental messaging is becoming increasingly common in the realm of consumer products.  Plastic bottles scream "recycle me!", brown bags asked to be reused, and old electronics, donated.  Companies claim their products are energy and water efficient, natural and safe.  These messages, while certainly significant, may wrongfully assume that the customer is familiar with the underlying issues at stake.  Do average consumers actually understand the issue of e-waste? Do they grasp the severity of worldwide water shortages?  Are they aware of propensity of marine plastic pollution?

Unfortunately, the level of environmental literacy in this country  is rather low (see this study on Americans' knowledge of climate change, for instance), so many consumers may lack a full understanding as to why they should recycle, donate, or even care about the environmental attributes of a particular product or company.  Which raises the question: should companies educate consumers on the actual environmental issues associated with their products' manufacture, use and disposal?

Some forward-thinking companies have already put forth programs that aim to educate consumers in this capacity.  For instance, Levis not only manufactures a jean using substantially less water, but also educates consumers as to why they should care about water conservation.  The company encourages their customers to wash their jeans less and their website includes water saving tips and insight into the problem of water scarcity.

Other companies, such as The North Face, have also made it a priority to educate consumers about environmental issues and have teamed up with non-profits to do so.  Protect Our Winters and the Alliance for Climate Education have partnered to create the program,  "Hot Planet, Cool Athletes", which is generously funded by The North Face.  This program sends professional winter sports athletes to high schools across the country to educate students on climate change.

Clearly, there is opportunity present for companies to engage with consumers on environmental issues.  Those companies that have already considered the environment in their operations would certainly benefit from having a more informed consumer base that understands and values the importance of such efforts.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Eco-Label Recommendations for Improvement

Overall, it is obvious that there are major issues that plague even some of the most popular and highly respected eco-labels. The following post will briefly discuss how some of these challenges can be overcome to strengthen eco-labeling in general.

Increase Regulation and Oversight

One of the most attractive features of eco-labeling is that it has the potential to drive sustainability without the need for government intervention. However, upon analysis it seems that there needs to be some regulation in the eco-labeling space in the United States. Greenwashing, redundancy, meaningless criteria, and increasing certification costs all point to this. A regulating body could provide consumers with assurance that eco-labels are credible and trustworthy, regardless of how many there may be on the market. To some extent the FTC Green Guides already addresses these issues, but because the FTC is not an enforcing agency, it has not eliminated such problems (FTC, 1998). Therefore, it is recommended that either the FTC is provided with enforcing power, or that a separate enforcing agency upholds their guidelines. By preventing labeling agencies from engaging in such greenwashing, eco-labels will once again become the reliable educational tools they were set out to be and consumer mistrust will be abated.

Facilitate Communication and Consolidation among Labeling Agencies

The current labeling environment includes hundreds of very similar labels, which confuses consumers and complicates the certification process for producers. It has already been proven that competition among eco-labels is detrimental; therefore it is recommended that labels that are similar or identical are consolidated (Mahenc, 2009). Consolidating labels will increase consumer recognition because there will be less labels on the market for consumers to know about. Increased communication among labeling agencies must be facilitated in order to encourage consolidation. The Global Ecolabelling Network is the perfect platform for such conservations. Members of the GEN should be provided with an incentive to team up with similar labeling agencies to decrease the amount of competition among them. A consolidation fund could be started to provide monetary support to agencies that decide to revise their criteria in the name of consolidation. This would allow more labels to achieve the market penetration they seek and need to be successful in achieving their objectives.

Raise awareness

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, in order for eco-labels to meet their primary objective of informing consumers’ purchasing decisions, consumers must know more about them and the accolades they verify. When consumers do not recognize the label on a product, neither of the remaining two eco-label objectives can be met. Therefore, it is recommended that eco-labeling agencies unveil awareness campaigns regarding their labels. There are numerous avenues for spreading the word about the meaning of a particular eco-label including print ads, commercials, signage, and websites. If the eco-labeling agency charges a small additional fee at the time of certification, this money can be put towards awareness-raising. Producers will likely not oppose such a fee, because it ensures the reaction they seek from consumers and the competitive edge they seek in the marketplace from using a label. These measures, in combination with newly developed smart phone applications such as the Consumer Reports Eco-Label App, will allow eco-labels to achieve the visibility they need to really make an impact and drive sustainability (Consumer Reports, 2011c). In general, this area has been lacking and the entire eco-labeling space has suffered because of this.

Overall, these recommendations seek to improve one of the most prolific tools available to consumers regarding green product education. Eco-labeling is extremely important in order for green products to receive the preference they deserve among concerned consumers. Eco-labels encourage green production, drive sustainability in the marketplace, and lessen industry’s overall impact on the environment. More efforts should be taken to improve the quality of eco-labeling in meeting these worthy objectives.


Federal Trade Commission. (1998). Guides for the use of environmental marketing claims. Retrieved from

Mahenc, P. (2009). Wasteful Labeling. Jounrnal of Agricultural and Food Industrial Organization, 7(2).

Consumer Reports. (2011c). New Eco-Label mobile app for iPhone and iPad decodes green product labels and claims. Retrieved from

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Eco-Label Challenge #5: Certification Costs are Misused and can be a Barrier to Entry

Unfortunately, eco-label certification can become a money-making scheme for third party eco-label agencies. A recent article concerning eco-labeling uncovers that, “Manufacturers are often required to make payments to the owner of the eco-label in order to display it on their products, risking low-bar standards for qualification” (Covington, 2011). Though payments to eco-label agencies are certainly necessary in order to fund product testing, audits, and information gathering, if it becomes excessive or misdirected, companies are essentially able to buy their way in, which jeopardizes the integrity of the entire labeling operation.

A recent study entitled “Wasteful Labeling” addresses this very problem. This study argues that labeling will not be able to solve the problem of verifying claims made by businesses if the labeling agency itself is untrustworthy (Mahenc, 2009). The study shows through economic analyses that when the labeling agency is trustworthy, the fee charged for labeling raises revenue with a minimal loss in terms of efficiency, and the money raised is analogous to a tax dedicated to funding the agency’s information gathering and other operations (Mahenc, 2009). Following this, if the agency is untrustworthy, it may charge fees that exceed the appropriate level in order to generate revenue. Similarly, an untrustworthy agency may divert the fees charged for labeling from their primary purpose of collecting information to raise additional revenue. In the first scenario where the price of certification increases, the actual price of the consumer good may also increase to compensate for this, which is a definite detriment. In addition, the high price of certification may discriminate against smaller, less profitable companies that meet the labeling criteria but cannot afford associated costs of labeling their product. In the second scenario, money that should be used to verify product claims communicated by an eco-label is diverted elsewhere, meaning that the thoroughness and quality of the actual certification process is compromised. It is clearly evident that labeling agencies need to be honest and credible to avoid the problems associated with certification costs but this is difficult to ensure in an environment where eco-labels are unregulated.

Next Up: My recommendations for overcoming the 5 challenges facing eco-labels!


Covington, P. (2011). Is it greenwashing or too many eco-labels that is the problem? Triple Pundit. Retrieved from

Mahenc, P. (2009). Wasteful Labeling. Jounrnal of Agricultural and Food Industrial Organization, 7(2).

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Eco-Label Challenge #4: The Criteria Development Process for Labeling is Faulty

One of the major objectives of eco-labeling is driving sustainability. When consumers choose an eco-labeled product over one without such labels, they are making the assumption that such product benefits the environment in some way. “To utilize its full potential it is necessary that the criteria for the label are strategically developed, i.e. the objectives for those processes being clearly defined and strategies to reach these objectives being laid out within criteria development processes” (Bratt et al., 2011, p. 1631). Unfortunately, due to insufficient criteria development on part of the labeling agencies, this is not always the case.

A recent study assessed two well-respected Swedish eco-labels to determine any gaps in the current criteria development processes in relation to a strategic sustainability perspective. The study demonstrates that most labeling programs lack a full system perspective and a definition of sustainability as well as a statement of objectives to direct the criteria development processes (Bratt et al., 2011). In result, eco-labels do not consider the total environment impacts of a product, but just focus on very specific impact mitigation. Moreover, criteria development rarely goes beyond the present. Labeling agencies do not inform producers about upcoming changes in criteria or suggest improvements producers should make for future certifications (Bratt et al., 2011). This makes it difficult for producers to keep up with changing standards and represents a lost opportunity for encouraging innovation. Overall, criteria development is one of the most important components of a successful eco-labeling operation, but it is often not as effective as it could be in driving sustainability.


Bratt, C., Hallstedt, S., Robert, K.H., Broman, G., Olkmark, J. (2011). Assessment of eco-labelling criteria development from a strategic sustainability perspective. Journal of Cleaner Production, 19, 1631-1638.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Eco-Label Challenge #3: Criteria for Labels are Weak or Meaningless

The plethora of eco-labels assures coverage of nearly all aspects of environmental impact, from production to disposal. Unfortunately, some labels make claims that are insignificant or meaningless. This is best illustrated by labels that claim a product is free of CFCs. The Consumer Aerosol Products Council, a non-profit organization sponsored by 3M, promotes the use of the “No CFCs” logo on aerosol cans and offers it to companies to display on products (Consumer Reports, 2011). However, because CFCs were banned from virtually all consumer products in the United States as a result of the Montreal Protocol in 1978, this label is completely pointless and misleading. An unsuspecting consumer may incorrectly assume that products without such label contain CFCs and choose to buy those that are certified. This provides companies using these meaningless labels with an unfair advantage over those that are not using them, when in fact all products are produced according to the same standard mandated by law. In a similar fashion, some eco-labels use sub-standard criteria for certification. Eco-labels are meant to verify the claims of leading, innovative companies that perform above the status quo in terms of environmental impact. Labels with low standards falsely portray a message of superior environmental performance, further deteriorating the integrity of labeling schemes. Such meaningless and weak criteria are certainly having an impact on the effectiveness of eco-labeling in meeting their three objectives.


Consumer Reports. (2011b). Label search results: No CFCs. Greener Choices. Retrieved from