By Bonnie J. Wallace
It’s becoming clear that the proliferation of eco-targeted labels (currently 424 in 26 countries, according to Ecolabel Index) is contributing more to confusion than to loyalty among consumers. Except for a handful of the most recognized logos– the Recycling Symbol, ENERGY STAR, and USDA Organic lead the rest by a long shot– most people still make decisions primarily based on price, style, convenience, and health benefits. Only the last of these ties in directly with perceived green qualities.
The Biobased label could well add to this confusion, since a product can get certified as Biobased without any demonstration of its superior environmental performance. It’s not technically an eco label in this sense. So why do we need yet another label, and why should you consider incorporating the USDA Certified Biobased standard into your company’s marketing strategy? For three major reasons: first, because this label has the recognition and credibility of the USDA’s backing. Secondly, the muscle of the Fed drives the initiative. Finally, it’s in alignment with a move away from petroleum-based materials, toward renewable materials, and efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. The label is part of a larger program backed by Executive Order to create agricultural jobs and better manage the carbon cycle. (http://www.biopreferred.gov/).
Distinguishing this label from so many others is its test-based standard, and the requirement that the percentage of Biobased content be included on the label. This makes for a powerful antidote to the numbing and meaningless claims of “natural,” “non-toxic,” etc. that flood the market and lead to a sense of greenwashing for even legitimately sustainable products. Different product categories have different content requirements to be recognized as Biobased. Categories of product that don’t yet have a standard established must meet at least 25% Biobased content to qualify for the label.
A controversial aspect of the new standard is its exclusion of “mature market” products from the program. Products with significant market penetration in 1972 (example: paper plates, cotton t-shirts) are excluded; the rationale being that the government wants to encourage the development of new Biobased products. But this can lead to the odd prospect of a new plastic plate with only 51% corn-based PLA qualifying for certification, while its 100% Biobased paper plate competitor does not, which is both confusing and misleading to consumers.
One way to get around the mature market issue is already in the hands of green marketers. Since sustainable qualities alone are not enough in a crowded field to compel most consumers to open their wallets, the best opportunity for market share may in fact be to create a new market category entirely. This could mean either redefining an existing product to fill a new or unmet need, or approaching old needs with a new eye. Most of the examples I can come up with in this category are technology or service-based (iPad, ink-jet printers, Zipcar, pizza delivery) but this doesn’t mean the opportunity is missing.
Redesigning existing products to meet new category status could both qualify the product for the USDA Certified Biobased label and open up an entirely new field to lead. What products do you have that may already qualify as Biobased? What might you be able to reposition in a new category, pairing green aspects with a compelling benefit (cost savings, stronger design, more convenient) to win both the label and a first mover advantage?
Bonnie J. Wallace is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles, specializing in responsible business. She holds a Sustainable MBA from Bainbridge Graduate Institute as well as a strong belief in business as a tool for transformation. When she’s not writing, Bonnie enjoys exploring ways that art can create community, and performing her supporting role as a stage mom.