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Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

Educating Consumers About Buying Sustainably


Sustainability is a word tossed around much these days. But do consumers really care about buying sustainably? The answer is yes. More and more consumers are interested in sustainability, as surveys show.  A 2011 consumer survey by Nielsen found that 66 percent of socially-conscious consumers cited environmental sustainability as the most important issue from a list of 18 issues.

So, how do you increase awareness of buying sustainably among consumers? The key is getting information to them. A study by Michigan State University researchers, published in 2014 in the Business and Economics Journal, looked at consumer awareness of fair trade information. The researchers found that informed consumers “are better positioned to make sound decisions and take the appropriate actions to address sustainability issues.” Providing access to “complete and accurate sources of information allows consumers to draw the connection between their consumption behaviors and social, and environmental sustainability,” the researchers concluded.

The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) is all about sustainable cotton and its members “are some of the largest apparel and textile companies in the world,” as Amanda Dooley, public relations officer at BCI, told TriplePundit. The nonprofit organization and its members play an important role in educating consumers about sustainably produced products.

BCI’s pioneer members are Adidas, H&M, Ikea, Nike, Levi Strauss & Co. and M&M. All have set ambitious targets for sourcing sustainable cotton and recently communicated to their customers about their achievements in meeting the targets. For example, Adidas announced that it exceeded its 2015 Better Cotton target of 40 percent as it sourced 45 percent Better Cotton last year. In the press release, Adidas explained that BCI “exists to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in and better for the sector’s future.”

“Today, global consumers are well educated about sustainability, and they are willing to put their money where their heart is,” said Paola Geremicca, fundraising and communications director for BCI. “A brand’s social purpose is among the factors that influence purchase decisions.”

Using the Internet to educate consumers

Buying sustainably-produced food can be a daunting problem, as Chris Hunt, special advisor on food and agriculture for the nonprofit Grace Communications Foundation, told TriplePundit. “Most food in the U.S. is produced by the industrial food system, and that creates huge problems for human health, for the environment, for communities and for animal welfare,” Hunt said. “The alternative -- sustainably-produced food -- allows us to feed ourselves without creating any of those problems.”

What the organization's Sustainable Table initiative does is “educate people about these problems and then present the benefits of the alternative, of sustainable agriculture, and provide people with tools and resources for making better food choices,” he explained.

Using the Internet is a major way to inform consumers about the importance of buying sustainably. A case study looked at the Sustainable Table program, which seeks to educate consumers about food-related issues. The case study specifically looked at Sustainable Table’s use of the Internet to communicate with consumers. The program has three different websites, a parody of the movie "The Matrix" called "The Meatrix," and tools such as a guide to finding sustainable food producers.

The case study found three main lessons to be learned from Sustainable Table’s successful use of the Internet to educate consumers:

  • It is important to take risks when experimenting with new types of media. Since the beginning of the program in 2003, Sustainable Table embraced the Internet and found ways to use it to inform consumers.

  • Making sure intended audiences have tools, resources and avenues to take actions on the issues addressed is key.

  • Plan in advance for success, and use a variety of media, formats and channels to get the program’s messages across and distributes its tools.

Buying sustainably sometimes means buying less

Making products last a long time is a key part of sustainability. And buying sustainably can sometimes mean buying less. That’s a philosophy Patagonia believes in strongly, as the company's director of global communications, Adam Fetcher, explained to TriplePundit. “This is a philosophy Patagonia has held for a long time, really since our founding,” he said. “We've always been committed to making the best possible clothing for the outdoors.”

To communicate the importance of repairing outdoor gear instead of just throwing it away and buying new pieces, Patagonia created the Worn Wear program. Worn Wear has existed since 2013, but extends the philosophy the company has had since its inception. Last year, Patagonia held the "Worn Wear Tour," which included a truck called the Worn Wear Wagon, and went around the country with a mobile repair station. The company taught people how to make their own simple repairs -- from putting on buttons or patches on their garments. Two technicians were also on hand to do more complex repairs for people.

“We repaired thousands of garments along the way, and even more importantly, we taught people about the importance of keeping their stuff in use as long as possible,” Fetcher said.

Around Black Friday, Patagonia released 40 different repair kits online. A year ago on Black Friday, the company hosted swap events where customers either exchanged their gear with one another or picked up something used. Fetcher said that the Black Friday events and the Worn Wear program are “all just in service of communicating our core value -- that as a consumer the best thing you can do for the planet is keep your stuff in use longer.”

How to sift through eco-labels

Looking for products with eco-labels is the easiest way to buy sustainably. But sifting through the various eco-labels can be daunting. So, here’s a brief overview of them.

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) certifies that a farm or ranch uses organic methods. What that means is that farmers use only natural means to grow produce or raise livestock. In other words, herbicides and pesticides are not used, and neither are growth hormones. Farms are inspected annually by the federal agency.

  • Fair Trade USA certification means that equitable trade practices are used throughout the supply chain, ensuring that farmers and producers receive a fair price. According to Fair Trade USA, its partner companies range from small coffee roasters to large transnational corporations.

  • The Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) label on meat and dairy products ensures that they come from farm animals raised with good animal welfare and environmental standards.

  • The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) protects forests and its label means that wood products have been certified to come from responsibly managed forests.

  • Energy Star is a program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to help businesses and individuals save money and help the environment through energy efficiency. An Energy Star label means that a product is energy efficient.

  • The EPA’s Watersense helps people save water through products that are water efficient. Products with the label mean that they have been independently certified to save water.

Image credit: Pixabay

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

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