What Consumers Should Know About Product Sustainability
by Jane Marsh
A lot goes into making and shipping something before it arrives on shelves. Plus, many items make big claims that can be challenging to research. How do consumers determine product sustainability?
The Impact of Product Sustainability
An individual filed a lawsuit against Delta Air Lines in May 2023, claiming its environmental claims were misleading. The company stated it was committed to becoming carbon neutral, which many consumers assumed meant flights were sustainable. In reality, it was essentially purchasing carbon offsets. Those can be challenging to measure accurately, which is where the concern comes from.
How can people know if what they purchase is good for the environment? While products often appear natural and have relevant labels, the company selling them may be intentionally misleading to seem more eco-friendly. Consumers must understand a product’s true impact to know if they’re purchasing something genuinely sustainable.
What Role Do Companies Play?
Consumers in the United States spend more than $14 trillion yearly, accounting for almost 67% of the country’s economic activity. Many shoppers from younger generations feel strongly about the Earth. As a result, companies often make sustainability claims as a form of marketing. They must positively impact the environment to appeal to the most customers.
Most people are willing to spend more on something if it’s good for the environment. For example, up to 70% of consumers say they’ll pay extra for eco-friendly packaging. It can be tempting for businesses to present vague or confusing claims when they know they’ll likely see a more significant profit.
While many try to appeal to environmentally-conscious consumers, there’s often a disconnect between their actions and their demographic’s desires. Most companies think they’ll be successful after releasing something green, but it’s usually more complex than that. People typically want to shop sustainably because they genuinely care about the Earth, so their purchasing behavior reflects that.
What Makes a Product Sustainable?
A lot of variables go into a product’s sustainability. Consumers should generally know what went into making it. While the label says one thing, the truth may be different. Finding out if it’s actually good for the environment may require some research.
Manufacturing is an integral part of having green goods. Companies using the correct methods or resources typically have a better environmental impact. For example, businesses using automation are more productive than those that don’t, even when they have fewer employees. Since they can get more done in less time, they improve their overall sustainability.
However, figuring out what makes something good for the environment is complex. Even eco-friendly packaging needs particular environmental conditions to degrade. For example, a cardboard box meant for the compost bin needs to sit in a dark, moist space with dirt — it won’t break down properly in a landfill. Sometimes, a product’s sustainability depends on how the consumer uses or disposes of it.
What Should Consumers Look For?
Consumers should know how companies produce, package and ship their goods to determine their sustainability. A lot goes into the process that affects the overall environmental impact, but they only need to focus on the most significant factors.
People should look for straightforward claims. It can help them find eco-friendly businesses even when product labels present confusing or vague information. Additionally, they can do a more in-depth search on the production and shipping process to get a more accurate idea of how green something is.
Everyone has a different definition of sustainability. For example, Generation Z is more likely to believe in a label’s claims if the manufacturing process is environmentally friendly. While analyzing every step can be useful, some people value specific actions more.
Still, looking at the operation as a whole is essential. Most people already feel this way, considering they’re more likely to think a product performs better when the entire company is sustainable instead of the item alone. Although individual sustainable goods matter, most people care more about the operation as a whole.
What’s the Future of Product Sustainability?
While many companies sell items with green-sounding labels, most consumers know little about their actual environmental impact. In fact, 42% of the 4,000 largest businesses worldwide don’t publish information on particular greenhouse gas emissions.
Such practices may soon change. Multiple agencies worldwide want stricter guidelines around green marketing. For instance, the European Union investigated false or misleading sustainability claims from various companies. It found that over half of them had products with unfounded or deceptive information. As a result, it wants to make them more transparent.
Many labels have words or phrases that sound nice but are actually baseless. For instance, words like “eco-friendly,” “green” or “natural” are meaningless. Some companies take advantage of how people associate them with sustainability to make their products seem better for the environment. The United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) even has advertising claims guides specifically for consumers confused about sustainable terms.
While figuring out if a product is truly sustainable can be challenging, it may soon become easier. Younger generations feel passionate about the environment, so they’ll likely make a more significant impact as time passes and their buying power increases.
What to Know About Product Sustainability
While figuring out how sustainable something is can be challenging, it’s possible with research and critical thinking. Some products make bogus claims or aren’t as good for the environment as they seem, so people must take a longer look at what they’re buying.
Article by Jane Marsh
Jane works as an environmental and energy writer. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of