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For consumers, more incentives to go green

Buy a computer, help plant a tree. Do such offers live up to their promise?

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Mr. Newton underscores that their collection of donations is governed by standard SEC reporting and that their fulfillment partners are independently vetted, and Dell provides detailed information about its program and partners on its website.

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It’s a level of transparency not all companies share. For customers to learn how their funds are being used and if they are going to what are termed “additional” programs – emissions reductions that only occurred because of the presence of incentives – requires research that can confound the average consumer.

The Shelton Group, an ad agency in Knoxville, Tenn. focused exclusively on energy, energy efficiency, and sustainability, recently wrapped up an independent study on consumer attitudes toward green marketing.

“What we see is just the average middle-income, middle-class consumer who is interested in doing the right thing,” says Suzanne Shelton, president and CEO of the company. “They can Google stuff, and they can poke around, but until they have some authoritative voice telling them ‘yes, this is green’ and ‘no, that’s not’ they feel ill equipped to really do it.”

In the absence of hard and fast regulation, many consumers buy with their gut.

“I think it’s about who’s doing the talking,” Ms. Shelton continues. “It works as a great brand enhancer for a company that is already perceived to be green, but I don’t think that it really serves as viable proof in a consumer’s mind for a company that’s not seen to be green as a core brand value.”

Buy for Good

Thomas Lyon, director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan, agrees that consumers need to be wary of taking companies’ claims at face value. “I think companies, if left to their own devices, have incentives to tell you part of the truth, but not the whole truth,” he says.

But Mr. Lyon also contends that skeptics shouldn’t sacrifice doing good in the absence of the best solution.

“There are a lot of good-hearted people out there who want to do the right thing, and they haven’t known how to do it, so companies are making it easier for them,” he says. “I don’t think these sorts of things are going to be ‘the’ solution. We definitely need government action, too. But they help us move down the road.”

How to find a reputable incentive program

• Look for transparency. Is there easily accessible information about the program on the company website? Do they divulge the names of the fulfillment partners?

• Good partners, good program. Bad partners … Most firms use fulfillment partners to administer their environmental programs. Find out who the partner is, and what certifications/accreditations that organization has. Green-E is a widely accepted certification for carbon offsetting. Other nonprofits can be checked out through sites such as charitynavigator.org.

• When in doubt, do it yourself. Instead of going through a marketing program, donate your money directly to an environmental nonprofit.

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