Sustainable, or green, is no longer just a buzzword--it’s become an important factor for consumers as they make purchasing decisions. In fact, up to 70% of Americans say they are searching for greener products, according to the Shelton Group. Purchasing decisions regarding housing and home renovations are no exception, as consumers are making more green-conscious choices that impact their living spaces. 

Last year, UL Environment set out to investigate to what extent green labels and certifications truly impacted purchase decisions, and what some of the key drivers of those decisions might be. The findings, published in Under the Lens: Claiming Green are eye-opening. The survey of over 1,000 consumers revealed the top three drivers for making green or sustainable purchases were health and safety, waste reduction, and conservation of natural resources. Forty-three percent of those surveyed said they were concerned about indoor air quality (IAQ). 

Specific to the building/home improvement category, health ranked first on consumers’ list of decision influencers. Claims that addressed health concerns (e.g., toxic materials and indoor air quality) were consistently rated more important for purchase influence, perceived value, and positive brand impact than other claims. In light of recent media coverage about alleged problems with Lumber Liquidators' flooring, consumer demand for healthy homes will most certainly rise in the near future.

Furthermore, 58% of the consumers surveyed said they would pay up to 10% more for a product with a third-party green certification and in the home improvement category, willingness to pay 10% more was most influenced by claims about air quality/VOCs/chemical exposure (Seventy-two percent said they would pay more for a product with a certification related to those health-impacting factors). 

The top claims that supported a purchase decision and a 10% price premium included reduced chemical emissions certifications like UL GREENGUARD Certification and CRI Green Label Plus certification.  While this doesn’t necessarily mean that manufacturers should charge a price premium, it definitely indicates a purchasing and brand preference for those products. Clearly, third-party certifications help establish the legitimacy of green claims. Consumers prefer them because, while consumers are concerned about indoor air quality, they are not often familiar with industry terminology. Certifications are often the only way they can evaluate whether a product is worthy. (Click here to access UL Environment's Sustainable Product Guide, a free resource that helps builders source certified products to meet specific building needs.)

UL Environment’s study clearly shows that there is a high level of interest in products that limit poor IAQ and have the potential to reduce chemical exposure in the home. But the data also show that while consumers selected many third-party certified green claims, some of those certified claims were found to be misleading or confusing. Many of the current claims about VOCs and air quality may suffer from too much science. For example, consumers hated the legitimate home improvement product claim “maximum VOC: 50g/L (0.42 lbs/gal)”: it landed at the top of the “most confusing/misleading” list and the “negative impact on brand perception” list. Of those who said it was confusing, 81% didn’t know what it meant, and 20% said it was too complicated. What consumers are really looking for are certifications and labels that are not only trustworthy and relevant but also clear and easy to understand. 

This hard data points to a very positive trend in green building--consumers are becoming more aware and educated on how their built environment can impact occupants but need more education on understanding and identifying credible green claims. This highlights the importance of builders and construction firms gaining a solid understanding of both the benefits to specifying and recommending third-party certified products in their building projects, and of the need to effectively communicate those green aspects of their buildings to the consumer who will be purchasing and living in those homes. Not taking advantage of the market-differentiation provided by a greener, more sustainable building project constructed and finished with certified low-emitting materials is to leave money on the table.