CHICAGO — Although the hottest trend at the 2008 International Home and Housewares Show is “going green,” the market remains confused, said Fabian DeGarbo, director of sustainable packaging, Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas.
The biggest need is education, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is getting involved, he said in a presentation here last week. “The key is to evaluate green claims on products, so the FDA is meeting soon to agree on terms and definitions,” he said.
DeGarbo forecasts 2008 as a year of gradual, positive evolution. “Although there is confusion and skepticism in the marketplace, education is the critical first step to making the green movement credible, and the FDA is helping resolve the conflicts. Consumers need proof. Putting claims on product and comparisons will enable them to understand the benefit to self and planet.”
Confusion about green issues extends to the actual terms used. For example, on whether “biodegradable” is the same as “sustainable,” DeGarbo said that “biodegradable” has little relevance, as everything on earth will eventually degrade. However, “putting a biodegradable date on products makes all the difference,” he said.
“Sustainability is more important, though consumers do not yet understand it. Whole Foods' approach is ‘cradle to cradle,’” he said.
Tracing the course of consumer awareness and retail approaches to “green” during the past few years, he said that the market has evolved from “‘green,’ a relatively new concept in 2006, to interest in ethical, local issues and being proud to give back to the community in 2007, to eco-consciousness in 2008.” The biggest factor in making a green choice remains cost. More than 80% of Whole Foods consumers are willing to make a green purchase if the cost is equal to or lower than other choices.
In selecting packaging suppliers for 2,200 products in the Whole Foods 365 private-label line under his responsibility, DeGarbo looks for a corporate match in objectives and history of donating some of the profits, while verifying against conflicting agendas: that they do not make other products which are harmful to the environment.
He added that with a push to buy local, “the ‘made in USA’ impact is huge. Putting that on the label will appeal, even if the product is more expensive.”
Urging caution in green buying, another session presenter, Jennifer Ganshirt, managing partner, Frank About Women, Winston-Salem, N.C., said, “Heightened awareness does not necessarily convert to behavior, especially in a downturn economy.”
She recommended that retailers add value to their product profile through connecting products with personal as well as global benefits. According to a survey her company conducted last year, 52% of women, the driving consumer force in green purchasing, will buy green at a higher price if it benefits the planet, while 37% are willing to pay more if a green product benefits the health of their family.
“Those willing to pay more for green are still relatively niche,” she said. “Less than 10% of manufactures are eco-conscious, but the market is changing as manufactures realize that when they use less materials and energy, they can actually increase their profitability.”