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Indian consumers are yet to become environment-conscious. In the West, consumer groups conducting comparative tests for products voluntarily took up the task of assigning environment benefits as a parameter for evaluation. This led to awareness among consumers, who then made demands on manufacturers. The awareness in the West is tremendous. "The Consumer Union in uk started in 1935 and their newsletter Consumer Reports has a circulation of 5,000,000. What I am trying to say is that whether manufacturers are cashing in on consumers' lack of awareness is not a major problem. The consumers in India do not pay attention to all these claims in the first place. I am not even sure whether the majority of Indian consumers know what they mean when they say 'biodegradable'," says Manubhai Shah, managing trustee, Consumer Education and Research Centre ( cerc ).
Mario Elena Hurtado of Consumers International states in a report (Consumers and the environment: meeting needs, changing lifestyles) that heightened environmental awareness naturally led people to do something about it. As soon as companies saw that they could sell products on the back of these environmental concerns, "green consumerism" was born.
The emergence of the green consumer helped force companies to look into the impact on the environment of their operations and products. Many companies tried to win customers by capitalising on their concern for the environment -- but by changing style rather than substance. Advertisements and product labels started appearing which made direct and indirect claims about the environment-friendliness of a given product. Claims that were hardly justified. Examples abound. "Fly Lufthansa for a better environment," cries the German airline company, basing its claim on the fact that it used modern planes which "help get cleaner air and better environment." "Environment-friendly Suzuki," boasts the Japanese car-maker, despite the fact that even the cleanest car will have an impact on the environment from the time the metal it is made up of is mined until it ends up in the scrap heap.
The explosion of advertisements and product labels using the environment to sell products that followed, soon left consumers bewildered and confused. A study in the us found that 47 per cent of consumers in the United States "dismiss environmental claims as gimmickry". In the uk it was 56 per cent, according to another survey conducted in 1990.
In countries where they exist, regulations and guidelines on environmental claims in advertising and marketing have established some order, but the problem of misleading or unsubstantiated claims remain. A 1996 study by Consumers International found many instances of misleading environmental claims in Central and Eastern Europe. That same year, research by the uk 's National Consumer Council ( ncc ) found that "a large number of products are being marketed with various claims about their impact on the environment or about their superior environmental credentials. Many of the claims cannot be verified, are vague, woolly, specious or misleading. Most are accompanied by a bewildering range of logos and symbols". A study by three us universities found that terms such as "environment-friendly" were being used thrice more often in 1995 than 1992.
But how does the Indian consumers seek redressal? "There are no products with the official Ecomark label," says Manubhai Shah. "All other claims made by advertisers have a primary obligation to substantiate those claims. In case an advertisement is found misleading, the cerc writes to manufacturers who have made such claims. If their queries are not answered satisfactorily, the consumers approach the Advertising Standing Council of India which has a consumer complaints committee. And if they find the advertisement to be false or misleading, they can direct the advertiser, advertising agency and the publisher to withdraw it. They also publish this information in a newsletter." But as far as the testing of a particular product is concerned, there are few takers.
Two studies have concluded that manufacturers are confusing rather than informing consumers with their environmental claims about their products. They may even do more harm than good, because many well-meaning people become cynical and confused and give up trying to buy 'green' altogether, the study found.
It also found that shoppers objected to being "blinded by science" and found it hard to make sense of the jargon used by manufacturers. Most shoppers do not buy green. Price, habit, brand names and quality are more important. Green products are often seen as more expensive, a mere fad and less effective than other brands.
Even "light-green" shoppers (who supposedly are more environmentally conscious than the average consumer) cannot say why product ingredients such as bleach and phosphates cause environmental damage.
The claims identified by the ncc fell into several categories, but all pose problems for consumers. Some were considered meaningless, such as a manufacturer claiming a shampoo or disinfectant to be biodegradable. All uk detergents exceed eu standards on biodegradability, the survey noted. Another such meaningless claim is recyclability, because in theory almost anything can be recycled, though few local authorities have the facilities to recycle plastic bottles, for example.
Other claims disguise environmental hazards. Many aerosols proclaim they are " cfc -free". However, the most popular replacement for cfc is butane. It is highly flammable.
Washing powders which state they "contain no phosphates" are also making another environmental pollutant, since phosphates have largely been replaced with seolites and other products, which may be just as harmful to the environment. These are no more than marketing tools, too vague to be tested in court and having no official status.
Another study, Environment Labelling in Central and Eastern Europe , published in 1996 by Consumers International and the United Nations Environment Programme ( unep) , also discovered numerous environmental claims that were either incorrect, misleading or irrelevant to consumers in that region. Sometimes the wording on the packages simply did not make sense. "Animal friendly" and "untoxic bleached" were a couple of meaningless slogans plastered on cans and boxes.