Take a stroll through the aisles in a supermarket this week. In the time it takes you to count to hundred you’ll likely be bombarded with as many brands claiming eco-friendliness.
Companies are piling on the new trend, selling everything from eco friendly baby powder to shaving cream to batteries. And consumers are noticing these brands among the 300,000 new products hitting the shelves worldwide every year. But behind the flashy labels and TV commercials guaranteed to show windmills, solar panels, and endless green fields lies a rotten truth.
TerraChoice, a market research company revealed the results of a study of 1,018 products randomly tested to see if they lived up to their eco-friendly claims. The results were startling. Of all the products surveyed, all but one failed to support their green boasts. The offenses ranged from products that advertised themselves as nontoxic but, frighteningly, just replaced old toxins with new ones that were still banned years ago to, more commonly, products that claimed so-called green status that could never be substantiated.
But the list of lies and techniques aimed at seducing the consumer seemed never-ending. There were hidden trade-offs—one aspect of the product was promoted as environmentally friendly while the negative ingredients’ impacts were obscured. There were irrelevant claims—ones that were technically but unimportant for the planet. There were lesser-of-two-evils claims that were narrowly true but ignored larger environmental problems—the supermarket equivalents to “green SUVs.”
All of these falsehoods and obfuscations take a toll on consumers—and it can be seen in Japan, home to vibrant innovation, where residents’ trust was put to the ultimate test during a food scare in late 2007/early 2008. Japanese people tend to trust a lot (perhaps explaining why there was no widespread looting in the days after the recent earthquake). It is one of those societies where you still can leave your umbrella unlocked in the entrance to the supermarket—and it will actually be there when you return. But the tradition of trust was put to the ultimate test when dumplings, a classic Chinese dish produced in China, packed, frozen and imported to Japan, suddenly caused the death of seven Japanese and sickened thousands of others. It was the first time in Japan’s history anyone had faced such widespread or fatal food poisoning. It created shock waves throughout the country. The sales of dumplings dropped to zero, and the effect trickled into almost every other category of frozen food. Consumers were in despair, unsure of what to trust.
And then something unusual happened.
I noticed this when taking a stroll through a Japanese supermarket. As I passed by shelf after shelf, cartoon drawings of people—like the ones you might see in the Wall Street Journal, appeared on brands. The sugar had one, the fresh salad, the fish—even the dumplings. Next to the head was a name of a person, his title, age, and home address. The title stated: “I’m responsible for this product.” Was it a joke—had Japan once again come up with another cartoon craze, or was this the next big marketing trick? Anywhere else in the world, maybe. Anywhere else, there would at least be a small disclaimer on the back of the product explaining the ruse. Here was a QR code next to every face. It took me to a site where the actual person I’d seen as a cartoon appeared as a real person—in video. He explained how he handpicked the particular product I was holding in my hand. I saw the production line, the transportation, and just in case I still suspected something dodgy about him, I could click on a link to learn more about him and his family.