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Green GradesCan Information Save the Earth?$

Graham Bullock

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780262036429

Published to MIT Press Scholarship Online: May 2018

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262036429.001.0001

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Valuing Green: The Content of the Information

Valuing Green: The Content of the Information

(p.27) 2 Valuing Green: The Content of the Information
Green Grades

Graham Bullock

The MIT Press

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter 2 introduces and explores questions about the content of information-based strategies with a motivating example focused on food choices. What values are embedded in programs that evaluate food products and companies, such as USDA Organic, Food Alliance, and Fair Trade? Different conceptions of value and values, are used to analyze the content of these and other similar initiatives. These concepts help reveal the many factors that determine whether different audiences will respond to environmental certifications and ratings, from the nature of the information provided to the personal preferences of individuals and their exposure to different forms of marketing and education. The chapter asserts that values are essential to understanding the perceived relevance of different forms of information content, and presents a range of data and theories about the relationships between values and different product categories, geographic scales, types of goods, and parts of the value chain. It concludes with a discussion of the most promising and problematic practices for increasing the perceived relevance and importance of the content of information-based strategies.

Keywords:   Values, Value, Food, Organic, Public, Private, Health, Consumers

My Food, My Values

So let’s return to our friend Mark, who is standing in the dairy section and deciding between the organic and conventional milk. He has figured out that the price difference is about two dollars more (1.5 cents more per fluid ounce)—an organic gallon of milk costs $5.97 at his grocery store while a conventional gallon costs $3.99.1 Is the organic option worth it? What is he getting for that extra two dollars? He has a few minutes to spare, so he pulls out his smartphone to do some real-time research.

The top Google results for “should I buy organic?” and “why organic?” list a host of reasons for buying organic. LifeHacker tells Mark that the contents of products with the USDA Organic label must be “at least 95 percent certified organic, meaning free of synthetic additives like pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and dyes, and must not be processed using industrial solvents, irradiation, or genetic engineering.”2 Consumer Reports states that buying organic helps “support farming methods for plants and animals that are healthier for the earth’s soil and water supply in the long run.”3 It also cites a study showing that organic milk has 60 percent more “heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids” than nonorganic milk and does not contain growth hormones.4 Organic.org lists ten reasons for buying organic, including (1) reducing the toxic load in our air, water, soil, and bodies; (2) reducing farm runoff of fertilizer and the creation of “dead zones”; (3) protecting “future generations” and infants in utero; (4) building healthy soil; (5) tasting better flavor; (6) assisting family farmers; (7) avoiding “hasty and poor science” in your food (such as genetically modified organisms); (8) eating with a sense of place; (9) promoting biodiversity; and (10) celebrating the “culture of agriculture.”5

(p.28) Other sites, however, raise several questions about these pro-organic arguments. A CNN article cites a Stanford University study casting doubt on the nutritional benefits of organic food, while a WebMD webpage claims that pesticide residues in nonorganic milk are “far below safety cut offs.”6 It also notes that “some organic foods come from multinational companies and have been trucked across the country” and their environmental footprint may be greater than locally grown, nonorganic foods.7 Many of the sites Mark visits emphasize that buying organic is a “personal choice,” and one that “depends entirely on you, your budget, and what you expect to get from these foods.”8 So how will Mark—and other consumers—respond to these competing reasons and arguments? How will he consider the other sustainability-related choices that he may be confronted with elsewhere in the store, such as fair trade tea, biodynamic wine, locally grown fruit, Rain-forest Alliance-certified chocolate, bird-friendly coffee, and Food Alliance-certified meat?

Many factors, from the trustworthiness of these certification organizations to the validity of their claims, will influence Mark’s decisions about these products. Arguably the first question that a consumer or anyone else will ask about sustainability-related information, however, is whether they care about the particular focus of that information. If they are not concerned about the underlying issues in question, then the quality of the methods, interfaces, and other components of the information supply chain is doomed to irrelevance. Our story therefore begins with an investigation of the factors that determine how different audiences respond to environmental certifications and ratings, from the nature of the information provided to the personal preferences and background of the individuals receiving that information.

We begin with an exploration of several key concepts that will help us understand how people evaluate the importance of different forms of information content. Building on research from a wide range of fields, this chapter examines different forms of value and different types of values, from use and existence value to egoistic and biospheric values. It discusses a schism that has emerged between scholars and practitioners over which values are most closely linked to pro-environmental behaviors and should be the focus of information-based strategies. The chapter concludes that while the jury is still out on this debate, important normative and strategic reasons exist for information initiatives to encompass (p.29) as comprehensive a set of values and issues as possible. It then presents data on the extent to which the 245 cases in the Environmental Evaluations of Products and Companies (EEPAC) Dataset accomplish this goal of comprehensiveness, across product categories, geographic scales, types of goods, and parts of the value chain. It finds that while some programs are relatively comprehensive, the vast majority are very narrow in both their focus and scope. The chapter presents both information pessimist and optimist perspectives on these results, and identifies promising and problematic practices for increasing the desirability and communicating the importance of the content of information-based strategies. It then returns to our friend Mark, and applies the insights of the chapter to his quandary in the dairy section.

Understanding the Nature of Value

Fortunately, social scientists and humanists have been rigorously studying this question of what really matters to people for many years, and have developed several concepts that can help us understand how different types of sustainability claims are valued. Insights on framing and mandatory disclosure policies from political science, value theory and brand salience from marketing and consumer studies, and values theory, construal theory, and the theory of planned behavior from cognitive and social psychology are all relevant to this area of research.9 Unfortunately, this research is dispersed across different disciplines and research communities that often do not communicate with each other. Thus the concepts they use frequently overlap and conflict with one another. They use the same words—such as “value”—to signify different meanings, and different words to signify the same meaning. In order to effectively build on this past work, this section explores these different concepts and draws important connections between them. From this discussion, an interdisciplinary conceptual framework emerges that brings conceptual clarity and precision to our understanding of the perceived value of competing sustainability claims.

The Varieties of Value

Let us begin with the concept of value. While most commonly used in the context of market transactions (“Did I get a good value for this product?”), (p.30) the term is derived from the broader Latin term valere (“to be strong, be well; be of value, be worth”) and is used extensively in the fields of both economics and philosophy.10 Indeed, classical economics is based on the labor theory of value, which in the words of eighteenth-century English political economist David Ricardo, posits that “the value of a commodity … depends on the relative quantity of labour which is necessary for its production.”11 Neoclassical economics, on the other hand, is based on the subjective theory of value, which asserts that value is determined by the relative supply and demand for an object.12 According to this theory, something is valuable not because someone spent a lot of time making it, but because people really want to buy it.

These two different types of economic value connect to several distinctions made by philosophers about value.13 The subjective theory of value relates to the ideas of extrinsic and instrumental value, while the labor theory of value can be linked to the concepts of intrinsic and final value. As Harvard philosophy professor Christine Korsgaard explains, instrumental value is the value that something has for the sake of something else, while final value is the value that something has for its own sake.14 On the other hand, extrinsic value is the relational value that something “gets from some other source” (such as being desired), while intrinsic value is the nonrelational value that something has “in itself” (such as being beautiful).15

While admittedly somewhat abstract, these distinctions are highly relevant to our understanding of the different types of value embedded in sustainability claims. Environmental activists, economists, and philosophers have long differentiated between the environment’s different forms of value, from its usefulness to humans today (its use value), to those same humans in the future (its option value), or to entirely new and future generations of humans (its bequest value). These all represent extrinsic and instrumental forms of value—they are derived from humans and are for the sake of humans, not the environment itself. Commentators also speak of the environment’s existence value—the value of nature independent of humans. This is a form of intrinsic value and final value that comes from nature and is for nature’s sake itself.16

A particular endangered species, for example, may be perceived as having existence value because it is intrinsically beautiful or because it has a right to exist for its own sake, independent of its beauty. It may also be (p.31) perceived as having use value because tourists enjoy observing it in the wild, option value because it may have medicinal uses in the future, or bequest value because it may be valuable to our grandchildren.17 Some people may perceive an endangered species as having all of these forms of value, while others may focus on either its intrinsic or extrinsic value, or its instrumental or final value. These perceptions of value can inform people’s actions either as citizens when they decide who to vote for or what organizations to support, or as consumers when they decide what products to buy (or not to buy).

The Role of Values

With this understanding of value, we can move to the concept of values, which has received a significant amount of attention in sociology, political science, and psychology. Values help people determine what has value to them, whether that value is final vs. instrumental or intrinsic vs. extrinsic. While definitions of the term “value” vary across these disciplines, Hebrew University psychology professor Shalom Schwartz and University of Münster psychology professor Wolfgang Bilksy identify five characteristics of values that are commonly found across the relevant literature, which are that they represent “(a) concepts or beliefs, (b) about desirable end states or behaviors, (c) that transcend specific situations, (d) guide selection or evaluation of behavior and events, and (e) are ordered by relative importance.”18

Schwartz has developed a values framework that is now widely used in the social sciences and has been validated across a large number of countries and cultural contexts.19 This framework consists of ten values that are categorized along two dimensions—self-enhancement versus self-transcendence; and conservation vs. openness to change (shown in figure 2.1).20 The self-enhancement category includes values emphasizing power over others and personal achievement, while self-transcendence includes caring about people you regularly interact with (benevolence) and caring about all people, strangers and friends alike (universalism). The conservation category encompasses security, conformity, and tradition, while the openness to change category includes stimulation and self-direction. The tenth value, hedonism, falls between self-enhancement and openness to change. Following Schwartz’s initial work, National Research Council scholar Paul Stern and George Mason University professors Thomas (p.32)

Valuing Green: The Content of the Information

Figure 2.1 Schwartz’s theoretical model of relations among ten motivational types of value.

Adopted from Schwartz, “An Overview of the Schwartz Theory of Basic Values.”

Dietz and Gregory Guagnamo subdivided the existing category of self-transcendent values in Schwartz’s framework into altruistic values focused on social justice, peace, and equality among humans and biospheric values associated with preserving nature, fitting into nature, and “respecting the earth.”21 They also classified Schwartz’s self-enhancement values category as covering egoistic values.22

Given its broad acceptance among scholars and direct relevance to our discussion, I will be returning to the work of Schwartz, Stern, and their colleagues throughout this chapter. Their work on values is important in light of research that has demonstrated that values are central to understanding and predicting human behavior. This work provides empirical support for Stern’s value-belief-norm theory, which posits that values are an important (p.33) determinant of not only people’s beliefs and personal norms, but also their behavior, and particularly pro-environmental behavior.23 This theory helps explain why people holding certain values and conceptions of value often choose to purchase products certified as environmentally sustainable.

Thus far in this chapter, we have covered a lot of these values and conceptions. Figure 2.2 provides a simple map of these different ideas to help us keep track of them all, and see the connections between them. It is divided into three sectors corresponding to Stern’s distinction between egoistic, biospheric, and altruistic values. The white boxes correspond to Schwartz’s four main values categories, while the ovals

Valuing Green: The Content of the Information

Figure 2.2 A conceptual framework for understanding value.

Note: The white boxes correspond to Schwartz’s four main values categories, while the ovals correspond to the philosophical conceptions of intrinsic/extrinsic and instrumental/final value. The dark boxes represent the four environmental conceptions of value—use, option, bequest, and existence value.

(p.34) correspond to the philosophical conceptions of intrinsic/extrinsic and instrumental/final value. The dark boxes represent the four environmental conceptions of value—use, option, bequest, and existence value. As figure 2.2 shows, on the one hand, existence, intrinsic, and final value are generally only linked to biospheric values, bequest value is only associated with altruistic values, and self-enhancement values are only connected to egoistic values. On the other hand, conservation and openness to change values and use and option value can have both egoistic and altruistic orientations, while self-transcendent values can have either altruistic or biospheric orientations.

We can use this map to analyze why people might value certain things and make certain decisions. Let’s consider something in nature that Mark and other consumers might consider to have some value to them. Fisheries are a good example that might be affected by Mark’s decision about organic food products. Conventional agriculture can lead to high levels of fertilizer runoff, which can lead to the expansion of hypoxic dead zones in downstream water bodies that have oxygen levels that are “too low to support many aquatic organisms including commercially desirable species.”24 One of the largest such zones exists where the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico, and has been associated with a decline in economically important fisheries. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers Thomas O’Connor and David Whitall, for example, found a significant correlation between the size of hypoxic zones in the Gulf of Mexico and the catch of brown shrimp in Louisiana and Texas.25 Thus buying conventionally produced food may be contributing to the decline of Gulf shrimp populations, and if Mark values these populations and fisheries he might consider buying organic products when he can.

As figure 2.2 shows, these shrimp populations may have value to Mark for many reasons. He may perceive them to have use value (he likes shrimp cocktail), option value (he may want to be able to eat shrimp cocktail 20 years from now), or bequest value (he may want his grandchildren to have the option to eat shrimp cocktail). These types of value associated with shrimp may be important to Mark because of his strong egoistic or altruistic values (shrimp for himself or shrimp for society). More specifically, they may resonate with particular values from Schwartz’s framework, such as hedonism, achievement, tradition, or benevolence. But the activation of these values is borne out of a sense of the fisheries’ extrinsic and instrumental (p.35) value. The shrimp serve an end beyond themselves—providing tasty nourishment or maintaining a family tradition, for example—and their value depends on something external to themselves. These forms of value therefore reflect the subjective theory of value and depend on the supply of and demand for the shrimp.

Alternatively, Mark may value these shrimp populations for their existence value and believe they have a right to exist independent of their value to humans. He may perceive them as having both intrinsic and final value because they represent an important form of life, created through a certain amount of (nonhuman) energy and labor. This type of value is therefore connected to the labor theory of economics discussed earlier, and resonates with the biospheric and self-transcendent values that Stern and Schwartz describe.

The Values Debate

This background on values provides the context for understanding a debate that has emerged about the relationship between values and pro-environmental behavior. Survey research has generally found that on the one hand biospheric values are most commonly associated with actions oriented toward protecting the environment, followed by altruistic values. Self-enhancement and egoistic values, on the other hand, have generally been found to be negatively correlated with personal attitudes, norms, and behaviors that protect the environment.26

Despite this research, an increasing number of both scholars and practitioners are calling on marketers to use claims based on self-interest to advertise their green products.27 For example, Jacquelin Ottman, a prominent green marketing consultant, claims that most consumers “want to know how even the greenest of products benefits them personally.”28 She gives several examples of green marketing campaigns that emphasize how the featured products protect consumers’ health and save consumers money. Nancy Schneider, another sustainability consultant, asserts that markets can reach mainstream consumers by positioning green products “as better, modern, or optimized” because “their purchasing behavior is based more on personal benefits.”29 Thus there appears to be a divide between marketing practices that are increasingly emphasizing the private benefits of environmentally friendly products and academic research that suggests most people buy those products because of their public benefits.

(p.36) This divide is likely due to several factors. The first factor is that the two groups are focused on two different types of people. On the one hand, the academic research is generally trying to explain what motivates the greenest of consumers, who may indeed be focused on the public benefits of green products. On the other hand, the practitioners are trying to figure out how to motivate everyone else to become greener consumers, who may be more focused on the private benefits of the goods they purchase. The second factor is that both sides in this debate are focused on values as static psychological traits whose order and importance are fixed and difficult to change. This assumption ignores the possibility that effective communication efforts can either change a person’s values or make existing ones more salient. Schwartz’s norm activation theory suggests that both norms and values can be activated with focused stimuli that can cause people to make decisions that they previously would not have.30 University of Tromsø psychology professor Bas Verplanken and University of Nijmegen psychology professor Rob Holland, for example, show that environmental values can be experimentally activated to increase consumer intentions to purchase products with more favorable environmental characteristics.31 University of Freiburg psychology researcher Ulf Hahnel and his colleagues also find that activating environmental values with nature photos causes consumers to both evaluate the costs of electric vehicles more positively and to be less sensitive to price increases in those vehicles.32

A Broader Values Framework

These studies provide important insights into the complex price effects of a value activation intervention and the important relationship between value centrality and these interventions. They do not, however, distinguish between or test the effects of activating different types of values. This highlights the third factor contributing to the divide between academic researchers and professionals working on pro-environmental consumption—they conceive of the benefits associated with green products in just two dimensions (public or private) when in fact those benefits have multiple dimensions that can appeal to consumers (and their values) in diverse ways.33 Schwartz’s values theory is a helpful framework for thinking about these different dimensions and how people respond to them. Eco-labels may not only activate benevolence, universalism, and security values by referencing their public and private benefits, but may also connect with a broader (p.37) and more complex set of values associated with hedonism, openness to change (stimulation and self-direction), and self-enhancement (power and achievement).

Such associations have increasingly been investigated in empirical research studies. For example, with regard to hedonism, in one study, German consumers cited their perception that organic food tasted better than conventional foods as one of the four main reasons why they purchase organic food.34 Another study found that American wine drinkers who expressed a strong interest in living a hedonistic life were more likely to purchase organic wines than those who did not express such an interest.35 Openness to change values, which include self-direction and stimulation, have also been found to be associated with pro-environmental behaviors. For example, 23 percent of a sample of Sicilian consumers cited curiosity as a motivation for buying organic products.36 Participants for whom curiosity is a particularly important motivator had consumed organic products for only a short time (less than six months) and tended to be younger and female. A survey of 10,000 U.S. female consumers found that purchasers of fair trade products place more importance on openness to change values, such as freedom of choice, independence, self-respect, creativity, and curiosity.37 Boston College sociologist David Karp found that openness to change values are most strongly associated with pro-environmental behaviors—ranging from recycling to volunteering to buying organic produce—when individuals also hold strong self-transcendence values (benevolence and universalism).

Documented associations between green consumption and self-enhancement values—achievement and power—are less common in the literature, and some studies have found the relationship to be negative (i.e., individuals for whom these values are particularly important are less likely to buy green products). These survey-based studies, however, frame these values in generic ways that are not necessarily relevant to the context of environmental behavior. Using a mixed-methods research design using focus groups, in-depth interviews, and questionnaires, University of Glasgow professor of marketing Deirdre Shaw and her colleagues found that consumers with a general interest in ethical issues do indeed view their ethical purchases as a form of achievement, and particularly as a means of being influential and having a positive impact on both other people and the environment. They also discovered that these consumers are motivated (p.38) by both a negative and a positive sense of power—to resist the power of capitalism and multinational companies and to embrace their own personal power as an ethical consumer.38

Each of the three values in the conservation category—tradition, conformity, and security—have also been associated with green purchases. Consumers have cited traditional food production, for example, as an important factor in their food choices. They want their locally produced food to be additive-free, traditional, and organically grown, and “to taste as they believed it did in the past.”39 Along these lines, University of Catania economist Gaetano Chinnici and his colleagues identified a small but stable segment of organic consumers as “nostalgic” because they associate “the consumption of organic produce with the genuineness and tastes of the past.”40 And research has shown that many consumers are more likely to buy organic foods if they perceive that people important to them think that they should do so, demonstrating the effect of a strong conformity value.41

A wide range of studies have also found that many consumers buy organic products because they perceive them to be healthier and safer than conventional products, which is directly linked to the security value.42 This appears to be particularly true for occasional organic purchasers and consumers who have recently had children or received distressing news about conventional food products.43 In other product categories, the security value can be activated when the purchase of green products results in cost savings (as opposed to health benefits), such as in the case of energy-efficient appliances. The importance of the security value found in these studies resonates with the emphasis that sustainability practitioners have recently placed on highlighting the personal benefits of green products for consumers.

The research showing a positive relationship between self-transcendent values and pro-environmental behavior, as mentioned earlier, is extensive and extends across a wide range of contexts.44 An important question that this literature raises is the value of the distinction between benevolence (concern for those one frequently comes into contact with) and universalism (concern for all humans and nature).45 While Schwartz’s original work provides ample justification for making this distinction, much of the empirical work utilizing his framework has found that they are highly correlated.46 But as Shaw’s focus groups explained, ethical consumers are (p.39) motivated by both a desire to have honest, helpful and “benevolent” interactions with companies and their employees as well as broader “universalistic” concerns about equality, social justice, and environmental protection.47 Similar to the research on biocentric and altruistic values, results are mixed as to whether these are distinctions that are universally significant.48 Given that they have been shown to be useful distinctions in some contexts related to green consumption, it makes sense to keep track of them for the time being.

Aspiring to Value Comprehensiveness and Clarity

This point is related to several important caveats about the research cited previously. The first is that for the most part the methods used in these studies are only identifying correlational and not causal relationships. So while an association between universalism and organic purchases may exist, we do not know if those purchases are being caused by the universalism value. They also often reflect the stated preferences of consumers rather than their preferences as revealed by their actual behavior. Also, these studies are conducted in particular places in particular contexts (e.g., apple consumers in Greece), and their conclusions may not be true elsewhere.49 And to the extent they do not find a particular association between a value and a behavior, this result may be due to inappropriate measures of either the value or the behavior, and the association may indeed exist. Nevertheless, despite these limitations, in the absence of better data, this research suggests important working hypotheses about the importance of a diversity of values in people’s decision making about environmental evaluations of products and companies.

The emphasis on values in this literature and in this chapter also builds on particular theories of behavior (e.g., the value-belief-norm theory, norm activation theory), but these theories and other theories of behavior are not mutually exclusive.50 For example, values may be activated either through deeply entrenched (or “frozen”) habits through the peripheral route (which involves less conscious processing) or via the central route (which involves more conscious processing) of the elaboration likelihood model, a particularly popular theory in psychology. They may become manifest as either emotional/intuitive or rational/cognitive expressions of approval or concern about a product or company. These expressions may be mediated by norms about a behavior or the extent of control individuals perceive they (p.40) have over a particular behavior, which are key components of another psychological model, the theory of planned behavior. These other models primarily focus on the cognitive processes by which behavioral decisions are made, and how these cognitive processes respond to different forms of information is a major focus of chapter 5. This chapter is instead focused on the desirability of the substantive content that flows through those processes—why do people find some eco-labels more desirable and important than others?

Following the logic and results of these previous studies, values do indeed appear to be a critical component of that content and a key factor in determining whether people find different sustainability labels and ratings to be desirable. While debates rage about whether public or private interests are most associated with pro-environmental behaviors, it is clear that they are not mutually exclusive. Research has clearly shown that not only are both self-transcendent and security values linked to purchases of organic food, but so are values associated with openness to change, tradition, conformity, power, achievement, and hedonism. Past scholarship has also shown that individuals prioritize these values differently; for example, some people care more about tradition while others care more about achievement.

While this research suggests that strategies that positively reference and reinforce all four types of values (self-transcendent, self-enhancement, openness to change, and conservation) are most likely to be attractive to the largest and most diverse audiences, this hypothesis has not yet been confirmed empirically. It is possible that narrowly focused initiatives, due to the simplicity of their message, may become more popular than more broad-based ones. Nevertheless, from both a normative and strategic perspective, the breadth of values that are important to the public demands that environmental certifications and ratings embody as many of the preceding values as possible (i.e., value comprehensiveness) and to clearly communicate those values that they do indeed embody (i.e., value clarity). Normatively, it is highly problematic for a certification to focus on a single issue to the exclusion of others. The marketing consultancy firm TerraChoice identifies this practice as the “sin of the hidden trade-off”—presenting, or greenwashing, a product as environmentally friendly based on an “unreasonably narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues.”51

(p.41) Such a practice is misleading to the public, and is akin to fraudulent marketing. It undermines the credibility of individual initiatives as well as information-based environmental governance strategies collectively. From a strategic perspective, therefore, it also makes sense for programs to be as comprehensive as possible. Until there is robust evidence demonstrating that such comprehensiveness somehow undermines the salience and effectiveness of information-based governance strategies, these programs should be designed to include as many relevant issues and dimensions of performance as they can. Likewise, they should also attempt to activate as many values as they can as well. It is these values that ultimately will determine whether different audiences see value in the claims of these initiatives, whether that value is extrinsic or intrinsic, final or instrumental, important to them in the present (having a high use value) or the future (having a high option value), or important to future generations (having a high bequest value)—or to no one in particular at all (but nevertheless having a high existence value).

The Content of Information-Based Environmental Governance Strategies

Given this discussion, how well do existing environmental evaluations of products and companies perform at communicating the substance and value of their content? How well do they convey their importance to people like Mark, as they decide whether these evaluations are worth paying attention to? In order to address these questions, we can consult my EEPAC Dataset of 245 different eco-labels and sustainability ratings. This database contains nearly ten thousand coded text segments from the websites of these programs, and is described in more detail in chapter 1 and appendix

I. The codes and text segments most relevant to this chapter fall into two general categories—the scope (i.e., what range of entities are being evaluated) and the focus (i.e., what criteria are being used to evaluate these entities) of these evaluations. The initiatives covered in the database cover a wide range of product categories and economic sectors that are relevant to U.S. marketplace.

Public Benefits: Pollution, Energy, and Climate Predominate

Let’s start with the focus of these 245 cases and the criteria they use in their ratings and certifications. Following the literature’s overarching focus on (p.42) the private and public benefits of green products, these criteria can initially be classified by these two broad categories. While we will see later how this is a limiting categorization, it is a useful place to start our investigation. Public benefits include the social and environmental contributions measured by the initiative, while private benefits include health, quality, and economic benefits that accrue primarily to the individual consumer. The specific criteria of these two benefit categories will be explained in more detail later in this section. Approximately 47 percent of the cases claim to use criteria that can be categorized as measuring both public and private benefits, while 40 percent measure only public benefits and 2 percent measure only private benefits. Just over 11 percent (twenty-six cases) do not claim to measure either type of benefit.

It is important to note that these statistics are measures of what these initiatives claim about themselves on their websites, not what they actually are doing. It is therefore possible that some of these twenty-six initiatives do indeed measure a particular type of benefit but do not describe it on their website. Despite this possibility, however, these statistics suggest that if trained researchers cannot identify any criteria that measure public or private benefits on an initiative’s website, it is likely that most consumers will not either. Any values they hold that might resonate with those benefits therefore will in turn not likely be activated when they encounter information from that initiative.

The publicly oriented criteria of these evaluations can be further divided into social and environmental categories. Approximately 30 percent of the cases include criteria that relate to social issues (such as diversity, employee health and safety, or human rights issues), while 86 percent of the cases include criteria relating to environmental challenges.52 These environmental criteria can be further classified by the types of environmental issues they claim to cover. Figure 2.3 shows that pollution and emissions are the most commonly mentioned issues, followed by energy and climate change, materials use, biodiversity and wildlife, and water use. Only 6 percent of the cases include criteria related to all five of these areas, while just over 40 percent cover between two and four of these areas. Approximately one quarter cover only one of these areas, and another 30 percent cover none of them. The correlations between these criteria vary substantially—pollution/emissions and energy/climate are the most strongly correlated (0.44) while pollution/emissions and biodiversity/wildlife are the least correlated (0.07). (p.43)

Valuing Green: The Content of the Information

Figure 2.3 Criteria coverage (by public issues mentioned).

Note: Figure shows the percentage of cases that mention criteria that were classified in the listed categories. Error bars indicate 95 percent confidence intervals for each sample proportion.

Approximately 17 percent of the cases also include criteria about a specific aspect of general environmental performance not directly related to any of these issue areas (e.g., use of an environmental management system). Another 13 percent make vague and general claims of green or environmentally friendly performance without referencing any specific environmental challenge, benefit, or policy.

These summary statistics provide several important insights about eco-labels and sustainability ratings (at least as they presented themselves in 2009–2010). The first is that one out of eight of them are committing what TerraChoice’s “Sins of Greenwashing” report called “the sin of vagueness”—making a claim that is “so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer.”53 For example, the Big Green Purse states that it lists “eco-friendly products” on its website, while National Geographic’s list of the 50 Top Ecolodges claims to have identified the “most earth-friendly retreats.” Neither of these cases explains how it make these assessments. Not only is this problematic from a validity and reliability perspective (the subject of chapter 4), but it also represents a missed opportunity to tap into the specific values and concerns that consumers have.

The fact that pollution/emissions, climate/energy, and materials use are the most commonly mentioned environmental criteria may reflect the fact (p.44) that they are the most likely to be perceived as “blended goods”—goods that have both public and private characteristics that may activate both self-transcendent and conservation values. Pollution can have an effect on both the health of individuals and the broader public, while wasteful energy use can impact not only the climate but also individual pocketbooks. Likewise, materials use not only refers to recycled, biodegradable, and sustainably produced products that enhance environmental conservation, but also to products that are free of hazardous chemicals that can harm both consumers and the environment.

Many of these cases are helping consumers make the connection between these private and public benefits. The correlations between mentions of pollution/emissions, energy/climate, and materials and health, economic, and quality benefits (to be discussed in more detail in the next section) are primarily positive, with materials and health having the strongest relationship (correlation coefficient = 0.37). Initiatives such as Green Seal, Cradle to Cradle, and Rainforest Alliance, for example, are at least implicitly linking health concerns with materials use on their sites. Programs such as ENERGY STAR, LEED, and Home Depot’s Eco-Options are doing the same for the energy-economics linkage. These cases are working to activate a range of values that can increase the desirability of their certifications.

The less commonly mentioned environmental criteria—biodiversity/wildlife and water use—may be less likely to be perceived as blended goods. Biodiversity is generally conceived of as only motivating to people with strong biocentric values, which might explain why biodiversity and wildlife criteria were negatively associated with economic and quality claims in the EEPAC Dataset. Similarly, water use is seen as important to people with either altruistic or biocentric values. Likewise, social issues are often perceived as only engaging those with altruistic concerns. These cases reinforce this orientation, as mentions of biodiversity, water use, and social issues are less strongly correlated—and in some cases negatively correlated—with mentions of private benefits. They also often do not overlap with the more commonly mentioned environmental criteria already discussed (energy/climate, materials use, and pollution/emissions). Only 16 percent of the cases include criteria related to both biodiversity and energy/climate, for example. This lack of overlap tells us a lot about the beliefs and motivations of the designers of these initiatives, and shows how the emphasis on private benefits by sustainability practitioners mentioned earlier is (p.45) reflected in the focus of these initiatives. This not only demonstrates the failure of most of these programs to address such pressing issues as biodiversity loss and unsustainable water use, but for several reasons also represents a missed opportunity to use these issues to connect with consumers and their values.

The first reason is that while biocentrism and altruism are not necessarily the central values for many consumers, they nevertheless can be activated to have an effect on their actions and behavior.54 The second is that for many consumers these values are increasingly important and central to their identity. Gallup polls consistently show that more than one-third of Americans consistently report that they personally worry a great deal about the loss of tropical forests and the extinction of plant and animal species, and this percentage increased from 2015 to 2016.55 The third, and perhaps most overlooked reason, is that biodiversity, water, and most social issues do provide important private benefits to individuals. More than 50 percent of human medicines were originally derived from natural sources, and as the recent drought in California has shown, inefficient water use can result in increased food prices for consumers.56

While most of the cases in the dataset do not make these connections, some at least have attempted to do so. For example, the website of the PEFC Sustainable Forest Management certification explains that certified forests are managed using practices that ensure that the rights of workers and indigenous peoples are protected, “biodiversity of forest ecosystems is maintained or enhanced,” and “the range of ecosystem services that forests provide is sustained,” including their role in the water and carbon cycles and the provision of food, fiber, biomass, and wood. The EPA’s WaterSense website clearly explains the need for water conservation and makes the connection between the environmental and economic benefits of their label explicit, stating that “by using water-efficient products and practices, consumers can help save natural resources, reduce their water consumption, and save money.” As an example of a case that emphasizes the intrinsic value of responsible consumption, the grocery store chain Whole Foods Market states that the company believes it has “a responsibility toward all entities involved in our business: our customers, shareholders, Team Members, suppliers, the environment and, not least of all, our community.” The company has therefore created its Whole Trade Guarantee certification program as “an extension of our values that lets (p.46) you rest assured that you are buying the best for you, for your community, and your world.”

Private Benefits: Health First, Then Savings and Quality

I also assessed the extent to which these cases claim to evaluate areas of environmental performance associated with private benefits. Such benefits accrue to individual consumers in three general categories—economic savings, health, and product quality. Given the variety of these claims, they were coded as strong, limited, or implied, with implied being used for references to specific programs that implicitly relate to a specific benefit (e.g., ENERGY STAR and cost savings, USDA Organic and health benefits). Strong codes were used when specific and extensive claims were made, while limited codes were used for more vague and general claims.

As figure 2.4 shows, health benefits (i.e., reduced toxicity, greater product safety, organic) were the most commonly mentioned private benefits. They were mentioned by one third of the initiatives, with 11 percent being strong claims, 18 percent being limited claims, and 4 percent being implied claims. An example of a strong health claim is the Blue Ocean Institute’s statement that its seafood guide “incorporates human health recommendations” about fish “that contain levels of mercury or PCBs that may pose a

Valuing Green: The Content of the Information

Figure 2.4 Criteria coverage (by private benefits mentioned).

Note: Figure shows the percentage of cases that mention criteria that were classified in the listed categories. Error bars indicate 95 percent confidence intervals for each sample proportion.

(p.47) health risk,” while an example of a limited health claim is the HIP Scorecard’s statement that their “analysis assessed the share of a company’s products and services that contributed a net positive benefit to customers’ and employees’ health and wealth.”

The second most commonly mentioned private benefit was economic benefits (i.e., cost savings, lower prices). They were mentioned by 21 percent of the cases, with 6 percent being strong claims, 12 percent being limited claims, and 3 percent being implied claims. An example of a strong claim is EPEAT’s statement that its electronics certification has saved the healthcare company Kaiser Permanente $4,784,598, while an example of a limited claim is Eco-Crown’s statement that they provide “concrete green measures to reduce costs.”

Product quality benefits (i.e., improved quality, better overall performance) were mentioned by the smallest number of cases—19 percent of the programs, with 2 percent being strong claims, 17 percent being limited claims, and none being implied claims. An example of a strong product quality claim is Whole Food’s Premium Body Care statement that “all items that meet our Premium Body Care standard are made with ingredients that must be necessary for the product to function well and look appealing while providing real results,” while an example of a limited product quality claim is Earth Check’s statement that its certification process helps companies improve the “guest experience.”

Overall, approximately 49 percent of the cases mentioned either economic, health, or quality benefits connected with the use of their information. Only 16 percent mention two types of such benefits and only 5 percent mention all three types. This final group includes initiatives such as Design for the Environment, Veriflora, and Food Alliance. Given that these benefits relate to a range of different values, such a strategy is likely to attract a wider audience. More specifically, people who value a more hedonistic lifestyle are likely to be attracted to discussions of product quality, while people for whom security is a central value are likely to be interested in claims about health benefits and cost savings.

These results highlight another important point about these appeals to personal values. Not only should these appeals reference a diverse range of values, but they also need to do so clearly and explicitly. Among the cases that claim to provide private benefits, over 85 percent only make implied or limited claims of such benefits. This statistic suggests that they are not (p.48) making the strongest case possible regarding the value of their product and company assessments to consumers and other stakeholders.

More generally speaking, while this data reflects sustainability practitioners’ emphasis on private benefits, it does not capture the full range of values that might be activated by these programs. Environmental certifications and ratings can also activate openness to change values, such as stimulation and self-direction. While specific criteria and benefits do not map as easily or as directly to these values, a lexical search of terms related to “innovation” can serve as a proxy measure of the extent to which these cases are activating openness to change values. Such a search revealed that only 14 percent of the cases use the term “innovation” or “innovative” more than five times on their sites (56 percent used it once). The Calvert Social Index, for example, describes various aspects of their approach as “innovative” seven times, stating that they have “been a leader in developing innovative ways to meet the financial needs of our shareholders and contribute to the well-being of society at large.”

Information-based strategies can also attempt to activate people’s self-enhancement values, such as achievement and power. As discussed, being influential, making a difference, and resisting the power of corporations are also important expressions of personal self-enhancement values for many consumers.57 A similar lexical search for “make a difference” found that 41 initiatives (17 percent) use this phrase on their website. Rainforest Alliance’s certification website, for example, states that “purchases of sustainable forest products make a difference,” while Staples’ EcoEasy program’s motto is “making it easy to make a difference.” These initiatives are using a mix of both rational and emotional appeals to activate the concerns and values of their audiences.

Horizontal Scope: Many Sectors Avoid the Spotlight

We can now turn to the scope of the environmental evaluations made by the 245 cases in the dataset. Their scope can be understood along three dimensions. The first is what I will call the “horizontal” dimension—the breadth of product categories and economic sectors that a particular certification covers. This dimension is important for two reasons—first, all other things being equal, consumers are most likely to be attracted to and remember a certification or rating that can be found on a broad range of products and companies. This tendency is most closely related to a sense (p.49) of both cognitive convenience and the self-enhancing value of achievement. For example, is it more impressive to be rated as the most sustainable company among the ten most sustainable food companies (as Unilever has been by Oxfam), or as the most sustainable food company across 3,000 companies representing a multitude of economic sectors (as Unilever has been by Forbes)?58

In order to develop a sense of how broad information-based environmental governance strategies are with regard to this horizontal category/sector dimension, I classified the cases in my dataset by their North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) industry sectors, which are widely used in the public and private sectors to categorize businesses.59 Figure 2.5 shows the number and percentage of cases in the sample by their NAICS sector. These NAICS sectors encompass the thirty-eight product categories (listed in table 2.1) that are covered by the cases and were identified during the coding process. Nearly 45 percent of the cases cover only one product category, while just over 55 percent cover more than one product category. Approximately 30 percent cover a broad range of sectors (ten or more) or are not limited to a select group of sectors.60 Manufacturing is the most common NAICS sector covered by this sample of cases, followed by Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing, and Hunting. Within the NAICS sectors, the most commonly covered product categories are Food (covered by 19 percent of all cases), followed by Household Products (16 percent), Apparel (15 percent), Electronics (15 percent), and Personal Care (15 percent). The NAICS sectors not covered are Administrative and Support, Waste Management and Remediation Services, Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation, Management of Companies and Enterprises, Mining, Quarrying, Oil and Gas Extraction, Public Administration, Retail Trade, and Wholesale Trade.61

Such uneven coverage of economic sectors and product categories suggests that information-based governance strategies are failing to shine a spotlight on a huge number of companies and products. Such an uneven focus might be justified by variances in consumer concern about sustainability by sector. Research has indeed shown that such concern about different issues can vary substantially depending on the product category. One study of consumers across six European countries found, for example, that over 20 percent of survey participants associated poor working conditions and use of child labor with chocolate and sweets, a level much higher than (p.50)

Valuing Green: The Content of the Information

Figure 2.5 NAICS economic sectors coverage.

Note: Figure shows the percentage of cases in the EEPAC Dataset that evaluate products or companies from different economic sectors. Error bars indicate 95 percent confidence intervals for each sample proportion.

the other products surveyed.62 Meanwhile, nearly 40 percent of these participants also listed the use of pesticides as one of the top three concerns they had when choosing a breakfast cereal. Similarly, Leeds University business professor Timothy Devinney and his colleagues have shown that consumers who are concerned about social issues associated with athletic shoes are not necessarily concerned about similar issues associated with AAA batteries.63

These studies bring up the important issue of materiality, which has been a hot topic among sustainability practitioners in recent years.64 In general terms, materiality reflects the extent to which particular issues are “material” or relevant to an entity, although practitioners differ on how such materiality should be defined and who it should be defined for (financial investors or a broader set of stakeholders).65 To some extent, these questions (p.51)

Table 2.1 Crosswalk between NAICS sectors and product categories covered by the case sample

NAICS sector

Coded product categories

Accommodation and Food Services

Restaurant, Travel

Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing and Hunting

Forestry, Fishing, Hunting, Carbon Offsets, Flowers, Food, Seafood, Wood Products



Educational Services


Finance and Insurance


Healthcare and Social Assistance





Apparel, Appliances, Automobiles, Building Products, Carpet, Chemicals, Electronics, Flooring, Furniture, Garden, Household Products, Laundry, Luxury Goods, Materials, Office Products, Paint, Personal Care, Pets, Pharmaceuticals, Toys



Other Services (Except Public Administration)

Dry cleaning

Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services


Real Estate and Rental and Leasing

Real Estate

Transportation and Warehousing




Note: Table shows how the product categories that are evaluated by these cases are classified by economic sector.

are methodological ones that I will return to in chapter 4, but on a deeper level they relate back to the concepts of values we have been discussing. The materiality of a particular issue in a particular context to a particular person is dependent on that person’s perceived connections between that issue and that context and their own personal values. If those connections are perceived as strong, the issue is more likely to elicit a strong cognitive or emotional reaction, or both.

The fact that consumers are more concerned about pesticides in cereal therefore likely reflects a perception that the ingredients in cereal are more likely to have pesticide residues than ice cream or soft drinks. Likewise, consumers who are concerned about the social issues associated with athletic (p.52) shoes may not care or know as much about the social issues associated with AAA batteries. Other characteristics of these products—their cost, the frequency and form of their use—might also explain these differences in levels of concern. Such differences should therefore not necessarily be interpreted as reflecting value inconsistency. Given the limited knowledge of most consumers about these issues, they should also not be used as justification for the major discrepancies in sector and category coverage shown earlier. As I will discuss in chapter 4, the onus is on certification initiatives to use methods such as Life Cycle Assessment and Hotspots Analysis to credibly demonstrate that particular issues are less material to particular product categories. But until they do so, the expectation should be that they will and should all be covered by these initiatives.

Vertical Scope: Products First, Then Companies and Facilities

The second “vertical” dimension of the scope of these programs relates to what entity they are evaluating. Imagine a company as a pyramid, with the base signifying all of the products the company produces, the middle signifying the facilities that produce those products, and the top representing the policies and practices of the company as a whole. Different criteria are more or less relevant to each of these levels, and different audiences may be more interested in particular levels of the pyramid. Generally speaking, personal economic and health concerns that connect to security values are more prominent at the product level, while environmental and social concerns that connect to self-transcendent values are more salient at the facility and company levels. Following the suggested practices of clarity and comprehensiveness discussed previously, initiatives that clearly cover all three levels in their evaluations avoid the sin of the hidden trade-off across these different entity levels. They may also activate the values and attract the interest of the broadest audience.

How common is such breadth among these programs? To answer this question, I coded the cases in the EEPAC Dataset according to the focus of their evaluation—are they evaluating products, companies, or facilities? As figure 2.6 shows, the most common evaluation focus among these programs is products (63 percent of the cases), followed by companies (43 percent) and facilities (17 percent). One quarter of the programs cover more than one level of analysis—12 percent assess both products and companies, 7 percent assess both companies and facilities, and 6 percent assess both (p.53)

Valuing Green: The Content of the Information

Figure 2.6 Evaluation focus (products, companies, or facilities).

Note: Percentages represent the number of cases in the dataset that fall within each category of evaluation focus.

products and facilities. Only six programs (2 percent) cover companies, products, and facilities. Three of these initiatives (Certified Organic, the Global Organic Textile Standard, level BIFMA Sustainable Furniture Standard) evaluate all three levels within one certification while the other three (Cleaner and Greener, Green Shield, Scorecard) have separate certifications for different levels.

Geographic Scope: Most Cases Miss an Opportunity

The final dimension of these evaluations is their geographic scope. Do they evaluate and compare products and companies around the world, within one continent or country, or a subnational state or region? This dimension may be interpreted differently by different audiences. Perhaps possessing a strong benevolence value and altruistic interest in connecting with and supporting people in their immediate sphere of influence, some people may find greater value in a local or regional certification, such as the Bay Area Green Business Program. Others, perhaps having more central achievement and universalism values, may have a higher regard for programs that have a broader reach, such as the B Corporation certification program. Just as a (p.54) strong rating across many sectors is more impressive than a rating within only one sector, an evaluation as the most sustainable company across many countries is more impressive than as the most sustainable company in a single state or city.

To assess their geographic scope, I classified the cases in the EEPAC Dataset by whether their websites show a clear global, North American, or U.S. orientation. As figure 2.7 illustrates, approximately 26 percent claim to have a global scope, 14 percent a U.S. scope, and 8 percent a North American scope, while 52 percent do not mention their geographic scope. The dataset by definition only includes initiatives that are relevant to the U.S. marketplace as a whole, so I cannot say what percentage of existing programs exist at the subnational level. However, we can conclude that a large proportion of initiatives are missing the opportunity to activate consumers’ values—whether they are values of benevolence, universalism, or achievement—by describing their geographic scope.

A further insight from these data is that these cases appear to be evenly balanced in terms of a global vs. U.S./North American scope. While those in the latter category may be missing opportunities to more strongly activate universalism and achievement values among consumers, they may also be benefiting from a sense of U.S. nationalism (i.e., we’re “Made in

Valuing Green: The Content of the Information

Figure 2.7 Geographic scope (global, North American, or U.S.).

Note: Figure shows the percentage of cases that mention their geographic scope. Error bars indicate 95 percent confidence intervals for each sample proportion.

(p.55) America”) or a North American “warm glow” effect. Nevertheless, they are also guilty of misleading their audiences because their comparison set is not as comprehensive as it could be. If a magazine in the 1970s had rated a dozen American car models as “Most Fuel Efficient” without comparing them to similar Japanese models, that would have been highly misleading. Thus, in order for their comparisons to be meaningful, information-based initiatives have a responsibility to be as geographically comprehensive as they can be.

The Content Landscape

We can combine at least some of this information about these 245 cases to develop a sense of the overall content landscape of information-based environmental governance strategies.

Figure 2.8 provides a visualization of this landscape, showing how many of the three types of private benefits are covered by the cases on the horizontal axis and how many of the five types of environmental benefits are covered on the diagonal axis. The vertical axis and height of the bars indicate how many cases fall into each particular category. The highest column in the back left-hand corner represents the fifty-one cases (20 percent) that do not claim to cover any of the private or environmental criteria coded for in the dataset. Overall, the relative lack of cases in the front right-hand corner of the figure reveals how few cases cover a broad range of both private and environmental criteria. However, one program, Pristine Planet, covers all five environmental criteria and all three private benefits (Veriflora). One other case covers all three private benefits and four environmental benefits (Greenspecs), while four other cases cover two private benefits and all five environmental benefits (Rainforest Alliance, B Corporation, Green Hotel Ratings, the Green and Natural Store, and LEED).

While too complicated to show in a single figure, we can also identify cases within the broader content landscape that cover not only multiple types of benefits but also multiple entities and product categories. The Cleaner and Greener and USDA Organic certifications, for example, cover multiple product categories, multiple types of benefits, and all three entity levels. The Global Organic Textile Standard, Scorecard, and the BIFMA level Standard (for furniture) includes four of the environmental criteria and one private benefit (health) in evaluations of product, facility, and (p.56)

Valuing Green: The Content of the Information

Figure 2.8 The content landscape of information-based environmental governance.

Note: The fifty-one cases in the upper left-hand corner of the figure do not cover any environmental or private criteria. The one case in the lower right-hand corner cover all three types of private criteria and all five types of environmental criteria. The five environmental (public) criteria are pollution/emissions, energy/climate change, materials use, biodiversity/wildlife, and water use. The three private criteria are quality, price/cost savings, and health benefits.

corporate performance (both focus on one product category). ENERGY STAR covers all three private benefits and two environmental issues (pollution and climate change) in evaluations of both product and company evaluations.

Such a landscape analysis also can reveal cases that have a relatively narrow focus and scope. Eleven cases cover only one product category and do not identify any of the three classified private benefits or any of the five specific environmental criteria. Two of these programs, Green Format (for building products) and the Natural Food Network, appear to have (p.57) been terminated, while six others—Oikos (also for building products), the Drycleaning and Laundry Institute’s Certified Environmental Drycleaner program, Travel & Leisure’s Global Vision Awards (for tourism-related organizations), Management & Excellence’s ranking of the world’s most sustainable and ethical oil companies, National Geographic’s list of the 50 Top Ecolodges, and the Aspen Institute’s Beyond Grey Pinstripes ranking of business school programs have not changed appreciably since their websites were originally coded. The eleventh case, however, Sustainable Travel International’s Eco-Directory, does appear to have evolved and its criteria have become more specific and comprehensive. There are forty other cases in the dataset (16 percent of the total) that cover multiple product categories but also do not describe any private or environmental criteria in their evaluations.

The Information Realist Perspective

Reviewing the literature discussed previously and looking at this snapshot of the landscape of information-based environmental governance strategies, the information optimists mentioned in chapter 1 will likely see much to celebrate. Research has consistently shown that a range of values, from those that are grounded more in concerns about society or the environment to those more centered on the needs and interests of the individual, are either already associated with green consumption or can be activated to increase the probability that people will purchase green products. The vast majority of the cases in the EEPAC Dataset are using criteria that can contribute to such value activation, and nearly half are referencing both public and private benefits to do so. They are covering a range of economic sectors, types of entities, and geographic scales, and the field has progressed significantly from the early days when only a few programs focused on single issues (e.g., ENERGY STAR), single industries (Responsible Care), and single scales (primarily the national scale).

The information pessimists, on the other hand, likely view many of these results as reinforcing their concerns about this form of governance. Here the relevance of the different forms of value and values discussed earlier in the chapter becomes manifest. The orientation of sustainability professionals toward private benefits and egoistic values, for example, is highly problematic, as it distracts from efforts to inform and mobilize the public (p.58) about the pressing environmental challenges facing society. Perhaps at the margins, a focus on a range of values, from stimulation to tradition, may be effective at influencing a few consumers, but it risks losing the larger battle to activate the self-transcendent values that are more directly connected to the threats of pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss.

These pessimists would also likely argue that this focus reinforces a paradigm of consumerism that inappropriately elevates the values of the market—cost, efficiency, and the neoclassical (and some would add “neoliberal”) emphasis on the shallow egoistic, instrumental, and extrinsic forms of value discussed earlier. Indeed, this is the primary message of the Common Cause Foundation, which argues that charities should collectively focus on activating intrinsic values (e.g., a world of beauty) and avoid using language that references extrinsic values (e.g., wealth).66 These information pessimists might also add that the emphasis of the reasoned action approach (an often-cited psychological theory) on perceived behavioral control should not be overlooked. Consumers who perceive that they have limited influence over product supply chains have a point, and we need to focus on strategies that do indeed exert such influence—like stronger laws and regulations.

As for the sample of cases, the fact that 11 percent do not mention any public or private criteria and that 10 percent are guilty of the greenwashing sin of vagueness should be highly alarming to information pessimists. Also concerning should be the results showing that 70 percent of the cases do not cover any social issues, and that less than half include criteria related to climate change/energy, pollution, biodiversity, water use, and materials use. Furthermore, the 30 percent of cases that cover only one environmental issue are guilty of the second form of greenwashing mentioned earlier—the“sin of the hidden trade-off.”67 By only focusing on one issue, programs are implying that the issues they are not covering are not important—a company certified as carbon-neutral, for example, may still be emitting enormous amounts of toxic pollutants into the atmosphere.

Pessimists would likely also see the emphasis on product performance instead of company performance as myopic and misleading. A company may sell a few green products, for example, but still have very poor environmental and social performance as a company as a whole. The fact that over half of the sample does not discuss their geographic focus reveals another problem—without knowing what their comparative set is, how can their (p.59) audiences evaluate the scope and relevance of these programs? For the 22 percent that have only a U.S. or North American focus, some pessimists might point out that the standards of these programs may be much weaker than their European or global counterparts, further undermining their already-limited effectiveness. And last but not least, this sample of 245 cases is missing entire economic sectors, from waste management to mining to entertainment, which suggests that some industries appear to be largely escaping the gaze of these initiatives. This problem is probably even greater in developing countries.

These concerns are legitimate, and proponents of information-based strategies should take heed of them. Nevertheless, the information optimists’ faith in this form of governance is also not without basis—some of the initiatives do have a relatively wide focus and scope, and cover a wide range of issues and product categories. To some extent, the identified gaps in coverage represent real methodological challenges and trade-offs for these governance efforts, and a narrower focus may be justified until those challenges are overcome. For example, the data and skills necessary to certify individual products can differ significantly from those needed to effectively assess a facility or entire company. This is an issue we will return to in chapter 4, but it is not an argument against aspiring to comprehensiveness whenever possible.

Information optimists might also argue that a narrow focus is necessary to effectively market to specific consumer segments and concisely explain the utility of the information being provided. This argument is sometimes made for single-issue programs such as ENERGY STAR, which focuses only on energy efficiency. The problem with this reasoning is that information-based governance strategies are not marketing strategies designed to sell products, they are governance strategies designed to create public goods. If an ENERGY STAR-certified product contains high levels of toxic chemicals, it is undermining those public goods, regardless of how much energy it is saving. And again, it remains to be shown that consumers respond less strongly to multi-attribute certifications. Indeed, such broad-based initiatives may appeal to a broader audience and have a greater impact than those that are more narrowly focused, all other things being equal.

The information realist perspective therefore is that while comprehensiveness in the short term may be a challenging goal, in the long run a (p.60) holistic approach is necessary and critical to avoid the shortsightedness and tunnel vision associated with focusing on a narrow set of criteria and values. Such a limited approach ignores the problem of the hidden trade-off and the long-term implications of excluding important dimensions of performance. Information realism recognizes that while existing strategies currently have significant limitations in terms of their relevance to a broad-based set of stakeholders and their coverage of important public and private benefits, some incorporate a much wider range of concerns and present them much more clearly than others.

For example, a lexical search of the term “public policy” in the EEPAC Dataset revealed that six cases (the Carbon Disclosure Project, Ceres’s ratings of the banking sector’s climate change performance, Climate Counts, As You Sow’s Beverage Container Recycling Scorecard, the Electronics Take-back Coalition’s TV Companies Report Card, and Citizen’s Market) include criteria measuring the extent to which companies positively engaged on public policy issues relevant to the focus of the evaluation. Climate Counts, for example, includes a criterion asking, “Does the company support public policy that could require mandatory climate change action by business?” While these cases only represent 2 percent of the EEPAC sample, they also represent important examples of how information-based governance can contribute to the crafting of the laws and regulations called for by the information pessimists, a theme to which we will return in chapters 6 and 7.

As a group, these initiatives have also broadened both their focus and scope significantly over the last three decades, which offers hope that they can and will continue to do so in the future. If this trend persists, coverage of product categories such as mining and criteria such as public policy positions should expand and deepen over time. In the meantime, however, consumers, activists, policymakers, and business leaders need to recognize this content diversity and reward those programs that clearly articulate a comprehensive approach both to the range of entities they are evaluating and the criteria they are using to evaluate those entities. Such clarity and comprehensiveness are the most promising practices with regard to the content relevance of information-based governance strategies, and should be strongly supported.

(p.61) Promising and Problematic Practices

More specifically, these initiatives should use criteria and language that activate as many of the ten values included in Schwartz’s human values framework as possible. They should also try to appeal to all of the types of value that are highlighted in the interdisciplinary theoretical framework shown in figure 2.2, from the intrinsic to the extrinsic and the egoistic to the biospheric. Sustainability ratings and environmental certifications should not only make the appropriate connections to private benefits such as improved health, lower costs, and higher quality, but also to public benefits related to existence value, option value, bequest value, and use value. They should cover the full range of social and environmental challenges whenever possible, and they should use arguments that rely both on reason and emotion. Their goal should be to cover product, facility, and company performance, and cover as many product categories as they can. Initiative designers should think hard about the geographic scope of their evaluations, and carefully consider the costs and benefits of a more local vs. global approach. And they should communicate all of these characteristics of their content clearly to the public.

While the EEPAC Dataset does not directly measure all of these practices, it highlights several important ones and enables us to identify a few programs that are doing relatively well in implementing these practices and a large number that are not. As our discussion of the content landscape identified, eleven cases provide particularly narrow and unclear coverage of different product categories, entity levels, and substantive areas of focus. Another thirty-one cases do not describe any private or environmental criteria in their evaluations. Other cases—Pristine Planet, Veriflora, Greenspecs, Rainforest Alliance, B Corporation, Green Hotel Ratings, the Green and Natural Store, and LEED—have a relatively broad focus and scope in their evaluations, and have the potential to connect to a broader audience as a result.

The Value of Eco-Labels on Food

Speaking of promising practices, what about Mark? Can this analysis help him as he considers whether to purchase a gallon of organic milk? What value would he get for that two extra dollars? The pro-organic websites he (p.62) visits presents him with a range of claims that connect directly to several of the types of value and values we have discussed. If the security value is central to him, hearing that organic milk has more omega-3s and fewer pesticide residues that can harm his health may resonate. If he has strong altruism, biocentrism, and universalism values, the benefits for air and water quality, biodiversity, and soils may make the organic option more desirable. While the skeptical websites are right to assert that organic does not necessarily mean local or small, it does harken back to historical forms of agriculture that existed before the introduction of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In this sense, the claims about organic food contributing to family farms, a sense of place, and a culture of agriculture may effectively activate Mark’s values relating to tradition and benevolence. Likewise, Mark might interpret the positive effect of organic products on future generations as having bequest value. On the other hand, none of the sites he visits, including the USDA Organic site, clearly articulate the use, option, or existence value of buying organic, even though the case could be made for each.

So all that for two dollars? Or approximately $100 a year if he buys milk once a week? Perhaps he’ll decide it is worth it, but what about the other labels he might encounter later in the store? Their value claims are similar to those of USDA Organic, but differ in subtle but important ways. Fair Trade, for example, has a much stronger orientation toward social issues, and its environmental standards are not as specific or as broad as those of USDA Organic. The certifications of Food Alliance and Rainforest Alliance distinguish themselves from the USDA Organic standard by their added focus on the treatment of workers and the conservation of wildlife habitats—and by allowing some use of synthetic chemicals. Food Alliance also includes animal welfare-oriented criteria, which are the sole focus of programs such as Certified Humane, Certified Vegan, and the American Vegetarian Association. The Smithsonian’s Bird Friendly Coffee certification emphasizes the improved quality and taste of its certified products (all of which are 100 percent certified organic and shade grown) as well as its biodiversity, water, climate, and community benefits. The Biodynamic certification is similar to the organic certification but focuses on the whole farm as opposed to individual crops and has several additional criteria, including a biodiversity set-aside requirement. Consumer Reports only considers the Biodynamic and Certified Naturally Grown (a program in (p.63) which inspections are generally conducted by other farmers) labels to prohibit the same range of toxic pesticides that are prohibited by the USDA Organic program.68

By investigating the content of these and other eco-labels, Mark and other consumers can identify which claims resonate with their values and decide whether they are getting a good value for the price premium associated with the certification. One way to think about this decision is whether this added cost creates more or less value than an equivalent contribution to an environmental advocacy organization. For example, is spending $100 on organic milk for a year providing more public and private benefits for Mark, society, and the environment than a $100 contribution to Greenpeace, or The Nature Conservancy? While buying organic and being philanthropic are not mutually exclusive and citizens can choose to pursue both strategies, this is a good test for the certification organizations and companies that are developing and using these labels. They need to make the case that the certification they are promoting does indeed deliver such value to people like Mark.

We might ask who exactly are “people like Mark,” and assume that only white, wealthy and well-educated consumers would even consider buying organic food. Nielsen Homescan data from 2013, however, show that African Americans and Hispanic consumers buy similar proportions of organic food to Caucasians, and Asians purchase greater amounts than all three other ethnic groups.69 While information on the relationship between education levels and organic purchases is not available for 2013, the same dataset shows that consumers making less than $20,000 and consumers making more than $100,000 are the most likely income groups to buy organic items, while those making between $20,000 and $50,000 are the least likely to do so.70 Thus consumers’ ability to pay is not directly correlated with organic purchases; the most economically disadvantaged consumers are purchasing organic food in the same proportion as the wealthiest members of society. This data contradicts an earlier analysis using 2004 data that concludes nonwhite, low income, and high-school educated consumers are generally less likely to purchase pre-packaged organic vegetables.71 And even that study shows that some consumers in these demographic groups do purchase organic products.

The broadening of the organic market is reflected in surveys of consumer preferences as well. A 2015 study by the Organic Consumers Association (p.64) found that the percentages of organic consumers who are African American (14 percent), Hispanic (16 percent), and white (73 percent) are very similar to their percentages in the American population as a whole.72 The number of African-American and Hispanic consumers stating that they regularly choose organic products have more than doubled since 2009 and 2011, respectively.73 Overall, 84 percent of consumers report buying organic food, and 45 percent report actively seeking it out and buying it once a month or more.74 Interest in organic food does not vary much by political affiliation—40 percent of Republicans actively seek it out while 48 percent of Democrats do.75

Such surveys of stated preferences may not accurately reflect actual consumer behavior, but they do reflect the aspirations of a broad cross-section of the American public. While organic sales still only represent a small fraction of all the food sold in the U.nited States (5 percent in 2015), they are growing across the board (11 percent increase in 2015 organic sales vs. 3 percent increase in sales of the overall food market) and particularly fast for some items (40 percent of all spinach sold in the United States is now organic).76 This is all happening without much direct marketing or outreach to consumers at all, who in turn may not fully understand the benefits of the label. A BFG survey found that only 20 percent of consumers could correctly define what “organic” really means.77

Indeed, a key conclusion from this chapter’s analysis is that the organizations that are implementing information-based environmental governance strategies can do a much better job of clearly communicating the range of benefits associated with their particular certification or rating. From the images and taglines embedded in their labels to the text and video on their websites, they should be clear and comprehensive about how their value connects with specific human values. Manufacturers of products with these labels can provide more information on their packaging about what these labels mean, while retailers selling these products can provide similar information through in-store guides in the aisles and on the shelves. Such efforts can not only further expand the already fast-growing organic market but increase interest in other green products as well. By appealing to a wide range of values and interests, on the one hand, broadly salient labels and ratings can attract support from both liberals and conservatives who are not always well represented in the environmental movement. Vague (p.65) and narrowly oriented labels, on the other hand, risk remaining obscure, unknown, and unused by the vast majority of society.

While all of these efforts to enhance the clarity and comprehensiveness of the content of information-based governance strategies are important, the focus and scope of these initiatives is only one part of our story. In the next chapter, we will explore an equally important component of the information value chain—the trustworthiness of the organizations behind these initiatives. Even if the content of an eco-label is comprehensive and presented clearly, it will likely not have much of an impact if it is perceived as coming from an untrustworthy source. (p.66)


(1.) Prices from the website of Harris Teeter (“Harris Teeter”), a regional grocery store headquartered in Charlotte, N.C.

(12.) One of the first articulations of this conception of value was made by Menger (Principles of Economics, 114–175.). First published in German in 1871, the first English translation was published in 1950 by The Free Press.

(13.) Many areas of philosophy, from moral philosophy to aesthetics, explore the meaning of “value,” and several, including axiology and value theory, explicitly focus on this topic. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides an accessible overview of this rich area of inquiry; see Schroeder, “Value Theory.”

(16.) For an accessible overview and empirical analysis of these different forms of values (which were first articulated in the 1960s), see Walsh, Loomis, and Gillman, “Valuing Option, Existence, and Bequest Demands for Wilderness.”

(17.) While beyond the scope of this chapter, scholars have debated whether these different forms of value are mutually exclusive, or whether they “supervene” on each other. For more on this topic, see Zimmerman, “Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Value.”

(p.278) (22.) Ibid.

(33.) A study by Krystallis, Vassallo, and Chryssohoidis (“The Usefulness of Schwartz’s ‘Values Theory’ in Understanding Consumer Behaviour towards Differentiated Products”) provides a useful example of this phenomenon. Their analysis of more than eight thousand survey responses for fourteen different values questions (from eight EU countries) concludes that the sample can be classified as “collectivistic” or “individualistic,” partially because some value domains may be “empirically missing” and “not practically important.” They also find that clusters of respondents with higher percentages of regular or occasional organic buyers hold collectivistic values more strongly. However, they acknowledge that the difference between the clusters with the highest and lowest percentage of organic buyers is only 4.8 percent. Clearly their two-factor categorization is not adequately explaining the diversity of factors driving organic food purchases in Europe. Furthermore, their assumption that some value domains are not practically important does not acknowledge that those domains may be activated under the right circumstances and may play an important role in driving green purchases.

(49.) Devinney and his colleagues make this point and expand on it in their work. DeVinney, Auger, and Eckhardt, The Myth of the Ethical Consumer.

(52.) While the social issues covered by these cases are important, the focus of this research (and this book) is on the environmental dimensions of information-based governance strategies.

(60.) The thirty-eight product categories were identified and named during the coding process from the perspective of the consumer and the products covered by each case. Once the coding was complete, I then manually mapped these product categories to the two-digit NAICS sector that most directly covered each category. The NAICS sectors are broader and more systematically constructed, and represent a more general industry and sector level perspective on the coverage of these cases.

(61.) It should be noted that all of these classification percentages are approximate because categories covered by different cases do not always correspond exactly, categories can overlap significantly, and it is not always clear what categories and sectors are included in an initiative’s scope. Also, the product categories were developed inductively throughout the coding process, and while codes were applied retroactively to previously coded text after the final case was coded, the iterative nature of this process makes this sector-based data potentially less accurate and reliable than the rest of the coded data presented below.