Friday, January 27, 2012

Trending Now: Green Consumer Education Through Smart Phone Apps

Currently, there are no well-known formal consumer education campaigns that provide direct instruction on shopping green, but there are numerous educational tools of the free-choice or self-directed variety. These tools can be split into two categories: pre-purchase, which are tools that must be consulted before a consumer shops, and point-of-purchase, which are tools that can be consulted at the moment a consumer decides to buy a particular product. One recent trend in point-of purchase consumer education is the use of smart phone applications. These types of point-of-purchase tools can be especially effective because they do not require planning and pre-conceived concern about the environment on part of the consumer. The following provides a brief overview of four notable apps that seek to inspire green consumerism.

The Good Guide is perhaps the most developed and advanced of the current offerings ( The Good Guide uses a cell phone’s camera to scan the bar code of a product and then provides an overall product rating that is comprised of three sub-scores based on health, environment, and society. Users can establish filters that customize ratings based on issues that are most important to them such as climate change or worker’s rights.

The recently launched Ingredients Inside app by Clorox is another tool that allows users to take pictures of barcodes ( When consumers scan the bar code of any Clorox product, they are able to “ take a closer look at the fine print on the Clorox family of products”. The company launched the app to provide customers with the information necessary in choosing the cleaning products that are right for their families and homes.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium ( and Blue Ocean Institute ( have each developed their own apps that provide sustainable seafood and sushi rankings. The Seafood Watch App by Monterey Bay Aquarium enables GPS so users can share and find restaurants and retailers that sell sustainable seafood near them. Blue Ocean Institute’s app provides “wine pairings and recipes to inspire delicious ways for you to enjoy your ocean-friendly seafood”.

ConsumerReports launched an app last month that allows users to search through a directory of ecolabels ( The app offers a label “report card,” which provides clear guidance on the meaning and significance of any ecolabel in question. As the number of ecolabels on the market swells above 400 worldwide, this app will certainly prove useful.

These smart phone apps are groundbreaking new platforms for green consumer education, but they do have their limitations. Perhaps the most obvious is that only consumers that own a smart phone can access the tool at the point-of-purchase. This issue of accessibility remains a significant barrier to the wide-spread use of such smart phone applications. Moreover, research on the effectiveness of smart phone applications in promoting green consumerism needs to be done before any claims can be made about their success. How often do consumers use the apps after they are downloaded? How much influence do product scores have on consumers’ purchasing decisions? We will likely see more companies and organizations unveiling similar apps in coming months, despite this lack of data on their effectiveness in driving green consumerism.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What language should we use when speaking about sustainability? Reactions from the NY GreenBiz Forum

At the GreenBiz Forum, one of the most common questions attendees asked was this:
How do I get my CEO or CFO to support environmental and social initiatives that I develop?

This question is certainly legitimate. Those in a CSR function at a company must convince executives of the importance in the strategies they develop, which is not an easy task when the strategies are not directly related to core business function. As challenging as this might seem, the resounding answer to the above question is very simple: show executives how such initiatives will benefit the company. Explain to them how they will result in financial gain and voilĂ : you will get the attention and support you want.

Demonstrating how CSR strategy produces revenue requires that you can talk the talk. The language you use when speaking to executives cannot be full of scientific jargon and environmental concepts. Indeed, Curtis Ravenel from Bloomberg urged all of us to learn the language of the financial community and use it exclusively. Members of the sustainability community so often want to highlight the importance of working for environmental and social good, but even the most eloquent and perfectly-argued pitch will fall upon deaf ears if it is not in the language its audience knows best.

At first, those who strongly advocate for environmental and social causes might feel like they are “selling out” by resorting to highlighting exclusively financial benefits. The motto that CSR is not about the values, just about the value might leave a bad taste in their mouth. The fact is however, there is no better way to promote environmental and social programs to those in decision-making positions at companies.

As a former educator, I would never teach elementary school students using the same language I use when speaking with my colleagues. If I did, I would lose their interest and understanding within minutes. Encouraging certain behavior and understanding requires a thorough reading of your audience and the finesse to frame your message in a relevant and meaningful way. This strategy is important to consider when communicating with anyone, but is especially applicable when pitching an idea to your CEO!

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Case for Education in Driving Corporate Sustainability and Green Consumerism

Because consumer culture is so deeply engrained within American society, it will probably require a major and rather unlikely paradigm shift before Americans begin to reduce their spending in the name of being more responsible citizens. Therefore, the push should be toward responsible consumer behavior instead of less spending (though this can certainly be debated!). Directing the money consumers spend toward more responsible products and companies is feasible and requires little sacrifice on the part of the consumer. Moreover, harnessing the purchasing power of the millions of consumers in the United States and using it to promote sustainable business practices can have a positive impact on the global environment and society. If consumers’ disposable income was effectively directed toward more sustainable producers, distributors, and retailers, a clear message could be sent to the rest of corporate America regarding the importance of conducting business in a responsible manner. Best practice would need to become common practice in order for companies to stay afloat in such a consumer-driven climate.

In order for this to be effective, companies that lead the way in terms of their environmental performance need to be rewarded with the patronage of concerned consumers. Unfortunately, consumers are confused about which companies are genuine in their efforts to minimize impacts because of the prevalence of greenwashing.

Greenwashing is a major obstacle in driving green consumerism because it makes it difficult for consumers to distinguish between truly responsible products and those that are only responsible at the surface. Companies that are genuine in their corporate responsibility efforts cannot reap the full benefits of consumer preference if there are greenwashed products in competition with them.

Though the FTC Green Guides have certainly helped curbed the prevalence of greenwashing, perhaps the most effective strategy in driving green consumerism is consumer education. Consumers need to be armed with reliable information about products and companies in order to make environmentally responsible choices. Customarily, consumer education has included life skills such as budgeting, balancing a checking account, preparing for a job, and performing price comparisons. However, consumer education has recently evolved to include educating consumers on the environmental qualities of a particular product and the environmental impact of consumerism in general. This will be integral in shifting consumer spending toward greener products and companies.

Indeed, current literature suggests that education positively impacts responsible consumer behavior. A 2010 study evaluated the impact of free-choice environmental education methods such as product labels, packaging, mass media, internet, and attendance of meetings on green consumption behavior (Pearcy). The study analyzed 236 survey responses and found a positive, significant relationship between participation in informal environmental education and green purchasing (Pearcy, 2010). Additionally, an economic study on whether green production can replace public and governmental interventions in the marketplace suggests that increased education of consumers is necessary before this can be achieved (Eriksson, 2004). The study demonstrates that there is a significant need for education about environmental impacts of products and services in order to increase the degree of green consumerism and in turn, decrease the overall environmental impact of the business sector (Eriksson, 2004). In sum, such studies show consumer education is a significant strategy for reforming the consumer product landscape and benefitting the environment and society.


Pearcy, D.H. (2010). Understanding the role of free choice environmental education in green consumption behavior. International Journal of Environment and Sustainable Development, 9,(1), 123-148.

Eriksson, C. (2004). Can green consumerism replace environmental regulation- A differentiated products example. Resource and Energy Economics, 26, 281–293

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Employee Engagement and Awareness

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 (see Therefore, this lack of awareness points to a significant problem.

There seems to be a major divide between people at a company who work in a CSR capacity and those that work on core business functions. This is a missed opportunity to capitalize on one of the primary internal benefits of CSR: employee retention and productivity. Employees want to work for responsible and forward-thinking companies and are more likely to stay at companies that have values similar to their own. Additionally, certain CSR projects like recycling programs cannot succeed without employee awareness and support. So why are so many employees being kept in the dark about CSR?

I’d venture to say this is not intentional, but simply an overlooked opportunity. To mend this divide, CSR initiatives within a company must be broadcasted to current employees through means beyond easily-neglected internal newsletters. CSR should generate excitement and buzz within and around a company, and achievements in this space should be used to attract potential employees. Furthermore, the CSR division should not be an independent entity within a company: employees should have opportunity for inter-departmental discussion and interaction regarding CSR.

PwC has some incredible employee engagement programs such as Project Belize incorporated into its CSR strategy. Employees cite these types of participatory programs as a source of pride in working for PwC. More companies could stand to benefit from engaging its employees in this way.