UT study finds consumers view eco-labels positively, but institution labeling product matters

Sam Limerick

A recent UT study found that the source, context and types of eco-labeling affect the levels of approval and trust established by labeled products among consumers.

The study, authored by advertising assistant professor Lucy Atkinson and former doctoral student Sonny Rosenthal, found consumer perspectives on eco-labeling are influenced by a variety of factors. Atkinson said consumers are likely to view any product with eco-labeling positively, but the institution endorsing this label has been shown to influence a consumer’s thinking on the product. 

Eco-labels have consequences depending upon how much the consumer trusts the claims of the label, regardless of whether a label is self-imposed by the entity marketing the product or mandated by government regulations, according to Atkinson.

“When it comes to eco-labels, consumers are willing to like a corporation for issuing a label, but they’re more circumspect when it comes to trusting a corporation,” Atkinson said. 

Consumers might like the fact that a company attempts to appear eco-friendly, but they are more likely to trust the government’s labeling rather than the company’s labeling because the government enforces compliance and accountability to a certain set of standards, Atkinson said. 

“When [corporations] engage in various forms of [corporate social responsibility] — including producing and labeling green products — they foster a sense of goodwill, but still, there may remain a sense that their activities are profit-oriented,” said Rosenthal, who is also an assistant professor at Nanyang Technical University in the Division of Communication Research.

The focus of any particular eco-labeling system can lead to different outcomes of consumer perception, Atkinson said. The study shows that the more specific an eco-label is in addressing some aspect of sustainable business practice, the more likely consumers are to trust the label.

“To the extent that an eco-label specifies what is green about the product, consumers have additional assurance that the product is actually green in ways that similar products are not,” Rosenthal said. 

Generalized eco-labels leave much to the imagination, and promote weaker connections of trust and approval with consumers, the study found. According to the study, concrete information that is used to support specific claims increased consumer trust in products.

Atkinson said the type of product can also influence consumer behavior when it comes to interpreting and judging eco-labels. According to Atkinson, products with low involvement, such as milk or cereal, have much to gain from eco-labeling, but there is less benefit for high-involvement products, such as smartphones, laptops and cars.

“Think about the last time you purchased a smartphone or a laptop or something equally expensive and technical,” Atkinson said. “You were probably concerned with practical issues like operating system, memory, screen quality, battery life, etc. These factors most likely outweighed any environmental factors.”

Biology junior Ibis Rojas said she finds other factors more important than eco-friendly labels when purchasing a product.

“I care more about the other qualities in a product,” Rojas said. “When I'm spending a large amount of money on a product, I'm selfish about what I want.”