True Green or Greenwashing: Buyer Beware

Something more powerful than the largest coupon, the behemoth billboard or the mega ad campaign…the marketing of green. Now you know we don’t mean as in the color, we mean “Ecological Marketing” (yes, it really used to be called this in the 1970s) or quite simply put, using the power of  environmentally-friendly language to sell products or services. Now this isn’t all bad if the claims are true. Problem is, turns out much of the time advertisers are making claims that are either misleading or outright deceitful and it’s up to the careful consumer to discern who is doing what.  For instance, Chevy’s green, leaf-ridden advertisements that explain their higher MPG than Toyota. How does this relate to being “green” other than the color? 

And maybe it’s the cynic in me, but I am hardpressed to find any companies who haven’t jumped on the green bandwagon to get some benefit of their own. But then again, we are talking about marketing here.  And if a company is actually doing something good to help the environment in one form or another and they want to brag about it, and in turn that helps to sell products, all the better. Marketing at its most regal. Sorta. Kinda.

In fact, green marketing has become more than a buzzword, it has spawned an entire cottage industry of green marketing agencies, consultants and branders. Hundreds of such agencies to help companies  “find” their inner green benefits, even if none exist. Who knew saving of  natural resources needed an agent?

And consumer research has shown over and over that even though we love the idea of protecting the earth and words like “sustainability” and “energy saving”, a majority of us  are confused and skeptical of marketeers’ claims and as well we should be. After witnessing the rise of green marketing to unseen heights the past several years, I have come to the conclusion that green marketing comes in 3 flavors, each less tasty than the last:  1) Authentically Green  2) Green Speak 2) Greenwashing

Authentically Green –  Otherwise known as no-B.S. Green. The grandaddy of them all,  Seventh Generation, has been around for 20 years. They were doing green before it was a trend and marketable. Their product list reads like a who’s who of best practices From their web site: “Seventh Generation brand-name products include: non-chlorine bleached, 100% recycled paper towels, bathroom and facial tissues, and napkins; non-toxic, phosphate-free cleaning, dish and laundry products; plastic trash bags made from recycled plastic; chlorine-free baby diapers, training pants, and baby wipes; and chlorine-free feminine care products, including organic cotton tampons.” (ok maybe TMI on the feminine care products but you get the idea). 

Another quickly growing authentically green marketing industry is the lifestyle category, as in clothing, accessories, furniture and other household products created from recycled, natural, organic and otherwise green roots. These are not only helping the environment to repurpose what has been discarded, but companies are applying creativity and whimsy to eco-fashion, style and substance – An “A” in my book.

Or the  rockier yet noble road with the U.S. Government’s “Energy Star” program, which has fanned out internationally since it was introduced in the Clinton administration in 1992. Though not without controversy for its bungled energy-savings data revealed in an 2008 audit (and  subsequently cleaning up its act), it is one of the only government programs partnering with corporations to do something good for the environment. Seeing the “Energy Star” sticker on appliances, lighting, and even homes helps the consumer do their part to save the earth and often times get a cash rebate in the process. 

Green Speak – Ever notice many detergents and shampoos who display “biodegradable” claims? Guess what? Most of these products have always broken down in wastewater systems and never caused harm to the environment. Or that your bank is suddenly “green” because they encourage you at the ATM to switch to online billing to save 30,000 trees? Even though these practices may be true, they are the tip of the iceberg, or worse, not really a reflection of the entire organization’s practices. They are closer to Greenwashing than Authentically Green. And there are FTC Guidelines listed for questionable and downright  deceptive advertising practices,  for instance, if a label says “recycled,” it must tell the percentage of recycled content—unless it’s 100%. Or if a marketer uses the word “natural flavor” it means derived from a formula cooked up in a lab to taste and smell like the intended food, it’s not really natural from the inside out. Another green speak tool marketers use is certain colors on packaging, namely – you guessed it – green or sometimes white background with green or a tan “natural” color. The color green is also associated with healthy food packaging but it has taken on a new meaning with green marketing. 

And then there is the worst one (cue the Jaws music) Greenwashing – First coined by Jay Westerveld, biologist and conservationist, in an essay in 1986 to describe the hotel industry’s practice of urging consumers to reuse towels and sheets yet being very wasteful in other parts of their organization, this term has stuck. In essence, when a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be “green” through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact. “It’s whitewashing, but with a green brush”, as one green marketing watcher put it. Unfortunately there are many more examples of greenwashing than I would like.

One of the most egregious samples of greenwashing is the $15 million Chevron ad campaign “Will You Join Us”, replete with soft piano in the background  in its TV commercials while Chevron employees urge “us” to help the environment by taking mass transit, buying a hybrid and other helpful suggestions to the masses. My personal recommendation to Chevron? Focus on your own problems as one of the biggest polluters on the earth before try to tell “us” what to do. In fact, in many ways this campaign backfired on them, with an anti-Chevron web site, satire ad, and more bad press than they could have ever had nightmares about.http://www.lcv.org/newsroom/press-releases/i-will-point-out-hypocrisy.html.

Thankfully there are more and more blogs, web sites and organizations devoted to calling attention to greenwashing and publicly punishing its perpetrators. More examples of greenwashing marketing here: http://www.thegreenwashingblog.com/ and here http://www.greenwashingindex.com/ads.php . One of the major greenwashing watchdog organizations can be found here:  http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Greenwashing. 

And similarly, it is up to the careful consumer to call marketers out on deceitful practices by filing a complaint with the FTC. See here for a brief primer: http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/general/gen02.shtm  or FTC guidelines for Green Marketing: http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/grnrule/guides980427.htm

Despite the abuses of green marketing and shady practices, a growing collective awareness has awakened marketers to how wasteful we are as humans and the many things we can do on a personal and societal level to help support our earth. It is unfortunate that the nexus for change for some companies has been to sell the other green – as in more profits  — and it is up to us as consumers to call them out on the carpet when they take exploit, take advantage or even downright lie in the quest for our collective desire to save Mother earth. The silver lining is that green marketing, when used appropriately, is pushing companies to examine and realign their products, services, infrastructure (and yes, of course their image).  Ultimately if this is the catalyst to do better for themselves and for society, green could be the new black.

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