|Vermont state government has already accomplished a great deal in greening its own supply chain and promoting environmentally preferable purchasing of many products, including refillable pens, custodial chemical cleaning supplies, chlorine-free recycled paper, re-treaded tires, hybrid vehicles, and other energy efficient technologies. The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation's (DEC) longstanding partnership with the State Purchasing Office has served to conserve resources, protect the environment, and safeguard human health. Items on the state contract have benefited state government, municipalities, and schools - but the contract is restricted to these entities, so benefits are not be extended to the average Vermont consumer.
The Vermont Household Hazardous Product Shelf Labeling Program, established in 1991, required all retailers stocking household products containing hazardous constituents to identify those products via a shelf label. The program's purpose was to promote toxic use reduction and pollution prevention by educating consumers about the dangers of hazardous household products and encouraging them to consider alternatives. Additionally, through customer education, the program intended to send a signal to manufacturers to produce less hazardous products by stimulating demand for non-toxic alternatives.
During the more than a decade that the Department tried to implement the shelf labeling program, there was only limited compliance by the approximately 3,500 Vermont stores (e.g., grocery, hardware, house and garden, and convenience stores) subject to the law. Because of this and because of mounting retailer opposition, the law was repealed in 2002.
In order to determine what sort of effort was needed to replace the failed shelf-labeling program, the Department created a public/private partnership to engage representatives from the public and private sectors to determine how to better understand consumer preferences and obstacles to purchasing environmentally preferable products (EPPs) and to test popular assumptions about what drives decision-making in the marketplace.
Organized as The Consumer Toxics Use Reduction Committee, members researched various types of consumer products to discover the human health risks associated with exposure to hazardous constituents and the environmental risks associated with release into the environment. Committee members wrestled both with what it is that science could tell us about these risks - and what it could not.
Using the tools of Community-Based Social Marketing, the group intends to identify barriers to the EPP behaviors they hope to promote and to develop a grant program to fund pilot projects designed to test various strategies for overcoming these barriers.
After educating one another, Committee members decided to focus their attentions on house and garden pesticides, household cleaning chemical supplies, and health and beauty aids. The Environmental Assistance Division drafted two survey tools with Committee overview. The first survey was administered to Vermont retailers and sought to better understand how available environmentally preferable products are in the stores, and if they are not, to discover what the obstacles and barriers might be to environmentally preferable purchasing. The second survey was administered as a telephone questionnaire of Vermonters in order "to determine how best to better understand consumer preferences and obstacles to purchasing environmentally preferable products and to test popular assumptions about what drives decision-making in the marketplace."
Although results of the consumer survey are still being evaluated and statistically analyzed, findings from the vendor survey suggest the following:
-A clear majority of survey respondents do not stock EPPs, and only 30 percent of survey respondents are asked by customers to have such products on the shelves.
-60 percent of survey respondents expressed interest in carrying EPPs.
-Key obstacles to stocking EPPs are lack of consumer demand (66 percent); higher costs of some alternatives (66 percent); products not available through distributor (54 percent)
-A majority (77 percent) of survey respondents said that if information and assistance were made available on safer or less toxic products, they would consider carrying such products.
These findings make it clear that the attitudes of both vendors and consumers combine to influence the availability and demand for EPPs and that any effort to increase the placement of EPPs on shelves must be premised on an information, education, and outreach campaign focused to both vendors and consumers.
The Consumer Toxics Use Reduction Committee and the VT DEC intend to establish a small grants program and to solicit proposals from others to use the findings of the two surveys to develop initiatives designed to test various incentives and approaches to overcoming identified barriers to the purchase of EPPs.