It's All in the Name - A New Tool Will Provide Assurance for Green Claims

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Despite the troubled economic times, recent research shows that consumers are continuing to purchase “green” products. According to a survey conducted in March of this year by BBMG, an American branding and marketing agency aligned with “forward-thinking brands and conscious consumers,” nearly seven in ten Americans (67%) agree that "even in tough economic times, it is important to purchase products with social and environmental benefits.” Half say they are still willing to pay more for them.

BBMG also found that interest in green products is holding steady. Three in four consumers (77%) say they "can make a positive difference by purchasing products from socially or environmentally responsible companies." On the flip side, 71% "avoid purchasing from companies whose practices they disagree with."

In a separate study this past spring by the Shelton Group of Knoxville, Tennesee, 22% of survey respondents said they have no way of knowing whether a product is green or not. An additional 20% look to the product’s label to determine whether it’s green, while 15% look to the ingredients list.

The point here is that consumers are confused and skeptical about the green claims companies are making. That’s why consumers are looking for easy ways to ensure they are getting what they pay for when they buy green.

To help them wade through this morass, sites like the Consumer Reports' Greener Choices eco-label center have emerged to provide objective information on various ecolabels and how they stack up across a range of criteria. A similar Canadian site is ecolabelling.org.

However, with hundreds of eco-labels on the market, and the varying levels of transparency and accountability they demand, many consumers are still left scratching their heads. Fortunately, an additional assurance avenue is on the horizon.

In 2010, Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the international organization that promotes competition, develops policy on the Internet’s unique identifiers and coordinates the Internet’s naming system, plans to introduce new top-level domains (TLDs) similar to .com, .org and .net. One of the possible new domains is “.eco.”

Imagine, for example, that only companies that meet strict and standardized criteria – informed by stakeholder input – are permitted to use the .eco domain name. Doing so would provide one more tool to help consumers make good, green choices. Key here are robust criteria and clear reporting standards.

To date, two groups are applying to run “.eco.” One of them is Big Room Inc., the Vancouver-based firm behind ecolabelling.org. The other group, known as Dot Eco LLC, is based in the US and has partnered with Al Gore and the Alliance for Climate Protection. From the activity on each group’s website, they both look like serious contenders.

According to Big Room, its vision for a green domain – which it simply calls Dot Eco – is “to create a significant new revenue stream for providing funding to [environmental] initiatives and organizations around the globe” and “allow Dot Eco domain name owners to communicate and share environmental and social information on their company, organization, product, or even themselves.” In other words, they see the “.eco” system as means to create a global trustmark and information platform that enables sustainable markets to grow and flourish. While there are some differences of viewpoint between the two groups, Dot Eco LLC promotes a similar vision on their website.

Both groups also propose a business model that would generate a significant revenue stream for eligible causes. With the Dot Eco LLC group’s alliance with Al Gore, they propose directing a portion of their profits into U.S. climate change projects from the Sierra Club, Alliance for Climate Protection, and Surfrider Foundation. Big Room, on the other hand, proposes to direct a percentage of revenues (not profits) to a broader range of environmental and social causes through an independent foundation.

However, while the criteria for awarding many TLDs is relatively straightforward (for examples, only Canadian-based organizations are eligible for “.ca”), it’s much trickier with the coveted “.eco.” According to Trevor Bowden of Big Room, “Some really big questions have to be addressed with this opportunity. The community needs to make a call here, and decide how .eco should be run for the long term.”

As a result, the Big Room team has rolled out a global policy development process to build a consensus for stewardship of the Dot Eco TLD. The first consultation session was held in May in Vancouver, followed by another in Sydney, Australia in June. Another one will be held in Sao Paulo next week. In contrast, Dot Eco LLC has put forward seven principles that “.eco” users would need to endorse before being allowed to use the TLD.

Both organizations will have to submit applications to ICANN by February 2010. A decision is expected later in the year. Stay tuned for more developments in the months ahead.

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