Manufacturers and suppliers alike are realizing the importance of sustainability to their consumers and are implementing “green” measures to quell as many concerns as they can. However, the question at hand is whether these efforts will have any real added value.

The Shelton Group, in fact, has found that most Americans are trying to purchase more green products but are doing so without enough knowledge to make informed and meaningful purchasing decisions. Take the “natural” vs. “organic” debate. Organic may well have the most regulatory definition, but natural may have the most weight to consumers. In a national survey of 1,006 respondents, the Shelton Group asked American consumers to identify the best product description to read on the label. Some 31% chose “100% natural,” with 25% preferring “all-natural ingredients.” The best organic could muster was 14% for “100% organic.” “Certified organic ingredients” was the choice for only 12% of respondents.

Further confusion rests in the notion of “green.” Some 60% of Americans claim to be looking for greener products; however, judging by their responses to Shelton questions, they seem quite confused in this area. Shelton asked, “How do you know a product is green?” Some 22% said they did not know or were not sure, while 20% trust the package label. Only 15% read the label or ingredients.

For that matter, consumers seem suspicious of manufacturers’ motives for going green. Nearly a quarter of respondents have the rather cynical notion that manufacturers are embracing sustainability to “make their company look better to the public,” while only 7% believe it is because the company actually cares about the environment.

However, this is not to say consumers expect less of manufacturers that claim to have gone green. Shelton asked respondents what their reaction would be, if a company that makes their favorite products and had advertised itself as green were to receive a government fine for failing emissions standards or for polluting. Some 40% said they would cease purchasing the product. In fact, 36% said they would not only stop buying the product, but they would also encourage their friends and family not to purchase the product.

The simple truth is that consumers may be largely in the dark about what constitutes green or organic or sustainable, but they know when manufacturers have tried to take advantage of their trust. Any manufacturer attempting to make such a claim had better be absolutely sure it can validate and support any such notion. In this economy, it could make all the difference. pf