Going Green Without Greenwashing

It's surprising how often PR professionals stump potential clients simply by asking them why they want to “go green.” Rarely do these execs respond by articulating the business/social goals that led to the decision. In fact, if you were to ask 10 people what it means to go green, you’re likely to get 10 different answers. Here are a few common responses:
•    I don’t know. You tell me.
•    Shouldn’t we make my logo green?
•    Make the other problems go away.
•    Sell more stuff.
•    I’ve got to keep up with the competition.
•    Regulations say we have to.
•    We need to protect the environment.

Truth is, none of the above responses is totally wrong. But which is right? Meaning, what is fundamentally the right thing? This is important, because businesses that go green without having an authentic environmental story to tell will run into trouble.

This term has been around a long time, but has never been so relevant as it is today. Simply put, greenwashing is when businesses spend more time and money telling the world how green they are than implementing sustainable business practices that lighten the environmental footprint of their company and customers.

Over the past year, we’ve witnessed it all. A bank that calls itself green because they offer online banking. Yes, virtual banking can cut down on driving, but the bank has offered this service for years as a convenience to its customers. Savvy consumers will call this BS. Others won’t pay attention because of all the green hype of late. Bottom line: A bank will not improve its bottom line by saying its online banking service makes it a green company. It’s wasting advertising dollars and perhaps even hurting its already good brand by claiming “greenness” prematurely.

But let’s look at the bank story another way. What if this same bank uses green building roducts when it opens new branches? Additionally, what if it buys nothing but recycled-content paper, recycles, conserves water and electricity and even invests its customers’ dollars in environmentally and socially responsible funds? What if all of this is an offshoot of a top-down business ethics philosophy conceived to minimize environmental impact whenever it’s financially and operationally feasible? Maybe then it wouldn’t seem quite so out there for this same bank to suggest to its customers to choose online banking over the drive-through as a way to preserve air quality. The point is to have real sustainable business practices in place before going green. In a word, it’s authenticity. Without this authenticity, it’s pretty much greenwashing.

Never before have so many businesses invested so much in showcasing the environmental features of their company and its products. Trouble can happen, however, when decision-makers miss several key steps before flipping the switch on the green campaign. The fallout can be expensive and can damage a brand. Consumers can perceive the advertiser to be disingenuous, and ultimately the company alienates the good customers they are working to embrace in the first place.
On the other hand, it’s been proven that companies that have a genuine commitment to sustainable business practices and tell their environmental stories well can strengthen brands, boost revenues, save money in operating costs and become more appealing to investors and talented employees.

Additionally, change is inevitable and businesses need to be ready. Climate change is here and it’s real, and the implications to laws, innovation and the economy are enormous. But so is the opportunity.

It’s been a decade since the Federal Trade Commission updated its “Green Guides” holding advertisers responsible for their environmental marketing claims. If you take a look at these guidelines, they’re all about recycling and composting. However, today’s environmental marketing is far more complex. Companies are saying they’re 100% wind-powered, thanks to the purchase of “renewable energy certificates” (RECs). Others claim they’re lightening the carbon footprint of their customers by planting trees—not literally by planting trees but by purchasing “carbon offsets” from others. These messages are getting incorporated into high-profile advertising campaigns and can be seen on product packaging.

Who’s ensuring these claims from the advertisers and the chaotic carbon market are accurate? Thankfully, the FTC moved up the regulatory review of its Green Guides by a year, holding the first of many workshops in January 2008. Who knows when the updated Green Guides will be formalized and, ultimately, how much time the FTC will have to enforce them.

Consumers can protect themselves now by learning how to scrutinize green marketing claims. In January 2008, EnviroMedia Social Marketing partnered with the University of Oregon to launch www.GreenwashingIndex.com, the world’s first online forum that invites consumers to post and rate real green ads.
Led by UO advertising professors Dr. Deborah Morrison and Dr. Kim Sheehan, a group of academics developed and weighted five criteria consumers can use to determine whether they believe ads are greenwashing by doing any of the following:
•    Misleading with words
•    Misleading with visuals and/or graphics
•    Making a green claim that is vague or seemingly unprovable
•    Overstating or exaggerating how green the product/company/service actually is
•    Leaving out or masking important information, thus making the green claim sound better than it is.

Within two months, 90 ads had been posted and rated by consumers in nine different countries. Two-thirds of the ads are from the energy sector and automobile manufacturers. Says one consumer: “This ad implies that driving a heavy vehicle through unspoiled wilderness is a ‘green’ activity, which it most certainly is not.”

The point of www.GreenwashingIndex.com is not solely to call out off-kilter ad claims, but ultimately to stimulate demand from consumers for sustainable business practices that truly reduce the impact on the environment. PRN

This article was written by Valerie Davis, cofounder of Green Canary Sustainability Consulting and EnviroMedia Social Marketing, and is featured in the new PR News guidebook, “Going Green: Outstanding Green Business Practices.” To order, visit www.prnewsonline.com/store/.