SOI 2012 - Eco Friendly Products: Has Green Peaked?

Many In The Industry Have Noticed Recent Decrease In Demand For Green Products

Eco Friendly Products: Has Green Peaked?Many in the industry have noticed the recent decrease in demand for eco-friendly promotional products, and according to Cathy Cummings, the reason behind it is pretty simple.

"We don't have as many requests for eco products, and I think it's all because of price," says Cummings, supplier relations manager for Counselor Top 40 Distributor AIA Corporation (asi/109480). "With the economy in such a fragile state, the average consumer isn't going to pay more for a product just because it's green."

Green marketing expert Colette Chandler says there are two types of buyers who purchase eco-friendly goods: those who do so only when it's financially viable, and those who think of the environment before any purchase and are willing to pay more for items that are truly green. She says the latter contingency is actually on the rise, which creates an opportunity for distributors.

"There are those who are more concerned about the environment and buy organic because it's important to them; they are going to continue buying that way," she says. "Due to the waste we're creating on the Earth and so many other things that are happening in the environment, I think we have to go this direction."

But distributors beware: Consumers who are truly eco-conscious (and also tend to be very socially conscious in general) have become very knowledgeable about which products, are authentically green, and which aren't. "I always tell companies when you're going to purchase eco-friendly products, that you need to know a lot about your vendors," Chandler says. "What is their mission? How do they source these products? Are there any labor laws being broken? I think the more information we have out there, the more consumers are getting wise."

And that kind of information is literally available at one's fingertips. There are even smartphone apps available, such as GoodGuide, that allow users to know by scanning a product's barcode whether the company they're about to buy from is really eco-friendly and otherwise socially responsible.

Chandler says more consumers are also becoming more cognizant of "greenwashing" – the practice of labeling a product as eco-friendly when certain aspects of the product, such as the way it's chemically treated or the jet fuel that was consumed to ship the product to its destination, debunk that claim. "I've even gone to conferences when reporters made fun of companies that gave away green products in a wrapper that wasn't green," she says.

"So, you really have to be careful with what you say, and I think that's why companies continue to be concerned about greenwashing. People really care about the environment – those who didn't care five years ago care today."

Danny Tsai, vice president of merchandising for Counselor Top 40 Supplier Tri-Mountain (asi/92125), says he's definitely seen that trend within the industry of people asking more questions about promotional items that are purported to be green. "For those consumers who are dedicated to the eco-friendly cause and lifestyle, just claiming something is eco-friendly is not enough," he says. "They want to know not only what the product is made of, but how – and often where – it is made.

"The latest iteration of the eco-friendly movement is several years old now, and there are a lot of great informational resources just a few keystrokes away, so that has raised the level of knowledge and sophistication our eco-friendly customers have."

Going forward, Jacquelyn Ottman, founder of J. Ottman Consulting (, says one of the best ways to get on the good side of eco-conscious consumers – as well as the more fickle, pocketbook-watching contingency of eco-friendly buyers – is to offer ad specialties that are functional, rather than products that are good for nothing but collecting dust on a desk.

"There is this genre of specialties that tend to be kind of pitchy, like pencils made out of recycled dollar bills with green erasers on them, and rubber balls that look like globes," she says. "Those are the things that I wouldn't be surprised if they're down because they're trinkets.

"I think that there is a growing backlash in this country to waste, and we're changing away from consumerism for consumerism's sake. I would think that would create a backlash toward some of these products. If ad specialty professionals are focusing on things that functionally provide value, and designing them in an environmentally-responsible way, there would be a very good market for that."

In terms of eco-friendly apparel, Tsai says the price gap is gradually pushing it into a specific category.

"I think you're going to see eco-friendly items continue to move toward more of a luxury category – the items themselves will have to be either very creative and unique, and/or have a higher perceived value proposition," he says. "The days of just making a polo out of organic cotton and expecting it to fly off the shelves are over for those suppliers who understand what distributors and end-users really want."

Cummings notes that many eco-friendly ad specialties don't cost as much as they used to, and distributors should fight that misperception. "I think the perception of green items is you're going to pay substantially more for that product, when that may not be the case," she says.

And since younger consumers are generally more eco-aware than others, Cummings says distributors would be wise to create promotional apparel and hard goods that are geared toward their wants and needs.

"They've been educated more on green and the components that make up green products more than others," she says, "so that may be an area to focus on."

Green in the Red?