Key principles to communicate your product sustainability information

Buying sustainable products matters now more than ever, but when choosing them we often deal with difficult decisions. Should I buy a sustainable product that was imported from the other side of the world? Was this chocolate really produced with no child labour as the label claims? As we navigate through these challenges, consumer brands can help us make sustainable choices by making sustainability messages clear and trustworthy. If you are a brand owner, marketing specialist, or a value chain expert, this article will help you understand how to provide your product sustainability information.

Consumers are taking a critical approach when it comes to sustainability. (Adobe Stock Photo)

Product sustainability information refers to claims made about the environmental, social and economic dimension of a product. These claims can reach consumers through a variety of channels: product’s package and label, product’s website, social media, TV or radio adverts, receipts, instruction manuals etc. When providing sustainability information, it is best to have in mind the entire product life cycle and the impacts of its every stage: from raw material extraction and product manufacturing, through its use and disposal.

1. Reliability

When you write the product sustainability claim, the most important thing is that the claim is reliable and trustworthy. That means that the claim or assumption needs to be accurate, robust, scientifically true and backed up with evidence.

If a company makes a claim “Our nuts are organic.” and substantiates this claim on their USDA Organic certificate, then this claim is reliable. However, if a company makes the same claim and uses their own standard, then it would need an additional assurance or endorsement by a scientific institution that this claim is reliable. Without sufficient evidence and transparent documentation on the production processes, this claim cannot be proven.

2. Relevance

When you’re writing about the sustainability impacts of your product, make sure you’re highlighting the characteristics that really make a difference in the product’s overall sustainability performance. At the same time, be careful not to enhance one aspect of the product in order to mask a rather poor sustainability aspect of the product (avoid the so-called burden shifting).

3. Clarity

Try to avoid general, vague and ambiguous claims, and make your messages clear. An easy-to-understand or a visual message goes a long way with consumers, who need to weigh different options to make their purchase decisions. With clear messages you can influence consumers to take action and, thus, promote sustainable consumption. For example, on your product label you can state the recycling and composting possibilities together with a call to action on how to compost.

Avoid the use of the following general terms: “environmentally friendly”, “eco-friendly”, “eco”, “good for the environment”, “sustainable”, “green”, “carbon friendly”, “natural”, “non-toxic”, “ecologically safe”, “pollutant free”, “clean” “zero emissions” etc. If such general terms are used, add a sentence backing the claim up.

4. Transparency

It is important to provide sufficient sustainability information about the product so that the consumers can make informed choices. However, you should adapt the quantity of the information to the consumer’s interest and product-related needs: the information should be detailed where it is most appropriate, otherwise it can overwhelm the consumer. Also, make sure not to make a claim whenever the substantiated information is considered confidential.

5. Accessibility

Provide the sustainability information in a way that is clearly visible to the consumers.

Though sustainable products are a promising business opportunity, unchecked product claims can result in mistrust with consumers. Following these basic principles can help you avoid greenwashing and increase your brand loyalty.

These basic guidelines on providing product sustainability information are based on UNEP’s Guidelines for Providing Product Sustainability Information.