Ecological product: a study reveals how italian consumers and retailers feel about them

The third Eco-Lucart research project interrogates consumers and retailers on ecological products. The results show a clearly growing business.

Perini Journal

Environmental protection is a social issue widely acknowledged by all modern societies. In the last 20 years, several international agreements have been reached aimed at limiting the environmental impact of our economic and production system. The results of these initiatives have often unfortunately, we might add - had uncertain results and doubtful success.

Nonetheless, we must acknowledge a greater and more widespread sensitivity towards those products and production processes that are more ecologically correct. In Europe, up until recently, this sensitivity seemed a prerogative of northern countries - Germany and Sweden on top - but today, a research carried out on a sample of the Italian population reveals the attitude of Mediterranean people towards ecological products. On 15 November 2001, a meeting called "Excuse me, what about ecological products?" was held in Milan. The meeting was promoted by Cartiera Lucchese, one of the main Italian and European producers and manufacturer of EcoLucart branded products, well-known brand of toilet rolls, kitchen towels, table napkins and handkerchiefs hearing the Ecolabel certification (the European ecological label that guarantees respect of the strict norms aimed at minimizing environmental impact). During the meeting, the results of the third EcoLucart Research were presented. This research was carried out two years after the previous one, in the summer of 2001 by Astra Demoskopea on a sample of 1000 people representing the Italian population between 14 and 79 years of age.

HOW DO ITALIAN CONSUMERS FEEL ABOUT ECOLOGICAL PRODUCTS? 52.3% of the interviewees is conscious of the fact that the real ecological paper is the one produced with recycled paper, without tearing down trees or damaging or polluting the environment.

In these last two years, ecological awareness has grown and Italians are more and more convinced (92.7%, against 88.9% in 1999) that it is necessary, in the case of disposable products such as toilet tissue, table napkins and paper handkerchiefs, to prefer the purchase of recycled paper products because they are produced without tearing down a single tree.

59.3% of Italians also states that they "use toilet paper, kitchen towels, table napkins and handkerchiefs made from recycled paper", and 95.6% of them stated that they are fully satisfied with these products. In general, 93.9% of those interviewed is very sensitive to the problem of environmental conservation, feeling that pollution is "one of the most grave phenomena of our modern world." For this reason, they ask that institutions promote severe laws and carry out even stricter controls (97.4%), convinced that many packagings and many products of everyday use are still too polluting and damaging to the environment" (92.4%). From public administrations Italians expect, therefore, more severe laws and controls, a greater amount of information, in particular aimed at the younger generations, and greater investments in environmental protection. Showing a great sense of responsibility, almost all the Italians interviewed acknowledge the need for a greater effort on the part of all citizens, because "only by changing some aspects of our daily behavior is it possible to contribute to the defense of the environment and to the reduction of pollution", (95.3%).

WHAT SHOULD EACH OF US DO? Italians know what they should do: "a more responsible behavior in everyday routines (dispose of waste properly, do not litter or pollute, etc.)", "separate waste in the appropriate collection bins", "when purchasing, prefer ecological products", and "prefer public transportation to the car." In their answers, 89.6% of interviewees declare themselves "willing to put in a strong individual effort" in the safeguard of the environment by buying ecological products (for 91.4%, "buying and utilizing fully ecological products can contribute to reducing pollution") and 54.2% of them declares to be buying these and using them regularly, against a small percentage (1.8%) that does not use them yet and gives as the main reason for this the fact that they cannot easily find them in the sales points where he or she habitually shops."

BUT WHICH FACTORS INFLUENCE THE DECISION WHETHER TO PURCHASE AN ECOLOGICAL PRODUCT? Surely they must be quality products, since 87.4% says they are not willing to accept a lower quality product but is actually willing to pay an equal (46.9%) or even higher price for it (34.2%).

AND WHAT ARE THE ECOLOGICAL PRODUCTS MORE FREQUENTLY PURCHASED? First place goes to biological foods (21.3%); then laundry and dishwashing detergents (17.1%); household recycled paper products: toilet rolls, kitchen towels, table napkins, handkerchiefs, etc. (13.2%); personal care and household cleaning products (7,0%); and, finally, paper writing products (2.6%).

BASED ON THIS ECO-MATURITY EXPRESSED BY ITALIAN CONSUMERS, WHAT ARE THE EXPECTATIONS CONCERNING THE INDUSTRY AND RETAILERS? The latter certainly plays a determining role: 88.4% of Italians shows a "substantial appreciation for the ecological products found in super/hypermarkets." 56.7% of them sustains that "a determining factor in the purchase of an ecological product is having found it in the place where he or she habitually shops" and where he or she would like it to be "well visible and well indicated on the shelves" (36.7%). The growing ecological awareness of Italians is also shown by their propensity to choose in the future those supermarkets and hypermarkets that offer fully ecological products (90.9%) and by their conviction that therefore "in the future, supermarkets and hypermarkets will have to offer fully "ecological products" (95.3% in 2001 with respect to 83.5% in 1999). Finally, Italians hope that the status of ecological product" Will always be proven by clear and authoritative external certifications" (95.7%), because many companies often try to pass for ecological products ones that in reality are not so (71.9%).

AND WHAT ABOUT RETAILING? What is the attitude of Retail Chains regarding ecological products? What role do the large super and hypermarket chains intend to play in enhancing ecological consumer products use? The answer is given in a study conducted by Dr. Fabio Iraldo (Ph.D) of IEFE-Bocconi of Milan and presented during the meeting. The study was conducted in the period September-October 2001, interviewing managers of the main Italian retailing structures. In particular, for each chain, managers of the following departments were interviewed:

-General Management, Marketing or Category management, Purchasing, Private label, Environment and quality

The structures involved in the study, representing about 70% of modern retailing operating in Italy, are

-Auchan Rinascente, Gonad, Coop Italia, Esselunga, Interdis, Selex, Mecades (Despar), PAM, Unes

What emerges from this research is clearly how the competitive edge connected to the enhancement of environmental aspects has been fully received by companies belonging to Large Retailing. This could mark a turning point in their strategy: the data collected highlight the willingness to make an effort towards environmental protection, without waiting for the citizens to express an explicit demand in this direction. We seem to have overcome the era in which the responsibility for interventions towards the safeguard of the environment was attributed above all to public institutions and policies. What the answers seem to indicate is the joint importance of different strategies in different areas (in-house, ecology push, ecology pull) in the definition of effective answers to the challenge posed by environmental issues. The environment is perceived as constituting a competitive advantage, but to this advantage there corresponds the awareness that the market should be oriented and influenced in the proper direction in order to obtain this result. In practice, the greatest opportunities for intervention seemed to be tied to the development of ecological private labels. Private label management allows more freedom with respect to some rigidities imposed by the traditional market and to more effectively influence the offer by suppliers (more prone to support the demands of retailers on an unbranded product.)

THE CHOICE OF SUPPLIERS BASED ON ENVIRONMENTAL CRITERIA is viewed by the majority of retail operators as an effective intervention, but one whose actual application (screening and environmental qualification systems for suppliers) remains a weak spot in their activities. One of the themes arousing the greatest interest for the survey centred on the very concept of ecological product. To the question, only apparently simple, "what is an ecological product?", the interviewees answered with rather unambiguous indications: the answer with which most of the companies were in agreement reports an ecological product that makes reference to its life cycle. The high average shows how the principles on which the life cycle approach is based have all been clearly received by operators of large retailing chains, regardless of the function carried out by the company and despite the idea that this type of analysis ("from cradle to grave") for the evaluation of the actual environmental impact of a product, has had only gradual widespread in the last twenty years. Another question that was asked to the managers of the large retailing chains was what, according to them, the consumer and the suppliers/producers perceive as an ecological product. In the first case, the prevalent answer remained tied to its life cycle, but the use of recovered materials and the potential of recycling also assumed strong importance. The reason could be rather obvious: the aspects connected to the problem of waste are those more closely tied to the sensitivity of the consumer, aspects which he or she faces daily and for which the consumer feels more responsible. For producers, what emerges is a perfect coincidence between the perception of the retailer and that of the supplier, and the level of awareness attributed by retailing to its suppliers is surprising. This is partly explained by the fact that suppliers are often large companies or multinationals who apply the concept of life cycle to the design and handling of their products.


An evaluation of consumer orientation regarding ecological products over the last five years was requested.

What emerged from the answers was that in the majority of those interviewed, some weak signals of "green" demand have been perceived in the last 5 years. Weak if referred to the market in general. But if we concentrate on specific niches with "very specific" products, the trends are more substantial. The niches where the trend towards ecological products is more greatly perceived are those for cellulose products and products for personal/household hygiene. In the last few years, these two categories have witnessed the largest offer of "green" products, often accompanied by support initiatives especially aimed at this sensitivity (advertising, information, etc.) The non-homogenous sectorial or niche trends in the consumption of ecological products must be researched in the differences that have distinguished the interaction between supply and demand in the different markets. The two extreme situations are in any case excluded: the consumption of ecological products is not "an evident trend for all (or many) product categories", but neither is it "completely absent among consumers." Even more comforting indications come from a look to the future proposed to the interviewees.

Operators of the Italian large retail chains have little doubt in drawing the (even though rather contained) growth perspectives of the demand for ecological products. According to interviewee forecasts, therefore, a constant but moderate e solution in the ecological products trend is expected. There are, instead, expectations of a regression in the demand of "green" products, therefore the large retailers' vision would seem to detect the advancement of a dynamic "ecological" market. The identification of the signals coming from the market leads to the necessity to find effective answers that, if possible, can widen the range of choices by the consumer and make the ecological offer more visible. The answers confirm that large retailing feels that the environmental demand on the part of consumers is sufficiently mature to allow for a surge of new products and an identification of the promotional strategies of those presently available. Despite this awareness, however, there is still the strong conviction that the consumer must he further orientated and guided so as to reinforce present trends and effectively channel them towards eco-compatible product choices. An interesting indication that comes from answer analysis is the one relative to the opportunity for cooperation with producers in the information supplied to consumers on environmental themes. From this point of view, in the non-food sector, the same availability that in these recent months has concerned, for example, the biological sector, has not been found. Here, some large retailing chains have started initiatives that point out to consumers other suppliers' branded products, together with their own private label products. Regarding the already mentioned environmental certification systems, these are demonstrating "on the field" that they constitute a guarantee for those who seek a product that is fully eco-compatible. But they can also be a powerful instrument for enhancing awareness and supplying information to those who have not yet made their product choice. The very fact that the European Ecolabel appears today on a growing number of products, for example, leads to an increase in the level of information supplied to the public that is thus exposed to the "ecological" message tied to the simple presence (and, therefore, the greater visibility) of the EU daisy on the packagings.

FOR PROMOTING ECOLOGICAL PRODUCTS, one conclusion has been that the so-called "eco

-logical oases' - the creation, that is, within the sales point, of special areas specifically dedicated to the promotion of ecological products - have not been particularly interesting or effective.

The lack of appeal of these special dedicated areas is substantially tied to the failure of the attempts to make modifications in the layout of the sales point, which in the past have given rather positive results. Some opinions expressed the negative connotation of "separating" the ecological products from the rest, with the consequent negative effect on the consumer. Not finding ecological products in the same area where the traditional ones are found reinforces in the consumer the common prejudice that they could never be competitive with traditional ones in terms of quality, performance and price, and should therefore be proposed to him or her separately. Finally, regarding the collaboration and the involvement of environmental and consumer associations, it seems that they are retained effective partners for initiatives concerning communication and awareness because they are able to promote the credibility of the retailing company with which they collaborate.

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