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Message on the Bottle


by Darrin C. Duber-Smith, MS, MBA and Gregory S. Black, Ph.D.

Understanding the applications of industry terminology is crucial to the success of any communications program. In the world of natural, organic and green products, this is especially true since there are so many terms and so little regulation. Greenwashing has come to signify an organization’s attempt to appear more environmentally and socially responsible than it really is—a practice that seeks to exploit the lack of regulation in the United States by this using terminology on labels and in broader marketing communications. To help clear the noise, here is a cheat sheet, so to speak, on a few commonly used terms:

Certified Organic

There isn’t much leeway here since its use is regulated by USDA using the National Organic Program (NOP) as a guideline. Praise the Gods! Labeling and other communications requirements are very specific and the rules depend on the percentage of certified-organic ingredients contained in the product. Pay careful attention to the laws for labeling and you will live long and prosper.


Though similar to organic, the term natural has come to mean the absence of synthetically derived and/or processed ingredients, i.e., ingredients found in nature and not processed in a way that can be considered synthetic. What does this really mean?  The U.S. government has failed to regulate this area in any meaningful way, although it has had ample opportunity to do so as there already exist many third-party labeling certifications around the globe. Natural Products Association (NPA), BDIH, ECOCERT and COSMOS are just a few such certifications, but they are meaningful only when the consumer understands what these seals mean. Problem too is there is liberal use of the term natural by manufacturers whether seals are used or not. Very little has been done on the part of industry to encourage widespread adoption of these seals with regards to branded products, or a widespread understanding in the broader world of stakeholders. When it comes to truly natural, most of the self-regulation is still done through standards on the store level. Use of such terminology on labeling should follow NPA for products marketed in the United States.

Socially/Environmentally Responsible

Socially responsible is an older term that's making a bit of a comeback in part because the word sustainability has yet to truly catch on; although consumers much prefer the term green. Originally, socially responsible referred to cause-related marketing efforts and other public relation initiatives directed toward generating goodwill and improving corporate image. Companies attempt to “give back" to society in part to negate the negative effects of commerce. The term only loosely refers to the environment, leaving that task to its sister environmentally responsible, the latter of which has been used in a similarly loose manner. Since there are no hard government regulations outlining proper and fair usage in communications, it is once again up to the industry to self-regulate, kept in check by thousands of socially and environmentally concerned non-government organizations. This exercise in non-regulation has managed to confuse consumers and given marketers free reign in the name of puffery—the act of exaggerating product benefits without crossing the line into false and misleading advertising.


Alas, this is the best term to describe an organization’s commitment to continuous improvement with regard to minimizing the negative impact its practices have on society and the natural environment. Setting measurable objectives is a crucial part of this business model, and communications have to be truthful and transparent with regard to what the company is and isn’t doing. The result is a stakeholder communications piece called a sustainability plan, which is updated every year as objectives are increased and the rage of initiatives is broadened. Communicating using this term is a more business-to-business function, as the understanding of the term in the consumer world is shaky at best. There are no rules governing these communications, only guidelines set by the federal government.


Despite the efforts of sustainability professionals to push such terms as socially responsible and environmentally sustainable, savvy marketers realize the consumer will do what he/she wants to do. The result is the term green. Perhaps this is the most abused term of all because it means so much and yet so little at the same time. To President Obama, it is “green jobs" in the renewable energy industry; to well-intentioned packaged goods companies, of which there are many, it signifies a healthier and more environmentally friendly approach; to the less well-intentioned, it means an opportunity to exploit the lack of regulations to achieve unfair competitive advantage and exploit the market. It sounds harsh, but it is the reality of this industry. Green also crosses over into many more industries than does natural, much in the same way environmentally responsible, socially-responsible and sustainable do, but since it is a term that consumers vaguely understand, it is used far more frequently. To the authors, green is simply a slang term for environmentally and socially responsible business practices, a word that is both well and poorly understood at the same time.

Sending Out an SOS

With all due respect to Sting and the Police, the authors are nevertheless sending out an industry SOS, much as one of us did back in 2003 with regard to the definition of natural. The result of that effort was the creation of the NPA definition and labeling standard, which is not exactly in wide use (due to lack of promotion, not a fatal flaw in the rules). And please don’t hold your breath waiting for the sudden appearance of government regulations to help weed out the bad actors. Efforts to encourage regulation have repeatedly failed (the government prefers guidelines to the resource-consuming practice of actual regulation) and self-regulation, as always, is an exercise in both corporate ethics, and how well an industry is able to police itself.

Hopefully, our industry associations (remember that these are the non-profits that run on donations and represent the industry’s interests) can step up efforts to encourage laws that protect the consumer and the industry’s true competitive advantage. The certified-organic regulations have worked well, all things considered, resulting in overall industry compliance and consumer protection, despite a couple of bad actors. This success should be applied to other meaningful terminology so the playing field can be leveled for all.

Darrin C. Duber-Smith, MS, MBA, is president of Denver-based Green Marketing Inc. and marketing professor at the Metropolitan State University School of Business in Denver, as well as affiliate faculty at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business in Boulder, CO. He can be reached at [email protected].

Gregory Black, Ph.D., is associate professor of marketing and department chair at Metropolitan State University and can be reached at [email protected].


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