How to Prevent Greenwashing Charges

Wikipedia uses the sophisticated French-based portmanteau—a blend of two or more words—to classify greenwashing as a mixture of “green” and “whitewash,” describing the effect of company misleading consumers about its environmental practices or its products’ green benefits.

The realities of green marketing are as complex as the French turn of phrase. On one hand, companies are compelled to develop environmentally responsible products. On the other, they risk criticism if they are perceived to be not green enough and, in turn, might fail to meet the mark in research, development, supply chain, packaging or marketing.

Wal-Mart has environmental clout typically reserved for a federal regulatory agency. In 2005, Wal-Mart opened a pilot green store, a big-box first. In 2006, Al Gore presented his movie, An Inconvenient Truth, to 800 Wal-Mart executives, noting that green business needn’t cause environmental and economic conflict.

After transforming the laundry soap industry, Wal-Mart now insists on energy-efficient lightbulbs from vendors. It’s requiring 60,000 suppliers to reduce or use recycled packaging, purportedly equal to taking 213,000 trucks off the road in five years.
Some believe Wal-Mart’s initiative and influence have quieted complaints about its labor practices and fake blogger fiasco. Its green leadership certainly clears a path for others.
On the flip side, even attempting to go green opens doors for potential greenwashing. Consider the power of words and influence among these dominant green overseers:

•    TerraChoice’s Six Sins of Greenwashing (

•    Greenpeace’s Detection Kit ( )

•    EnviroMedia’s Greenwashing Index (

•    Eco-Pornography Labeling (

Big brands and regional retailers are frightened by their lack of control. With that in mind, how can a company and its PR counsel plant the seeds for a green harvest?

1.    Be patient, even with criticism. Education and public sentiment mitigate change. In widening your green path, critics invariably arise. Green, undertaken as a process, can be effective and profitable.

2.    Be cautious and consistent with claims. Scrupulously address your green assertions in all business communications and marketing. Be modest until you’re certain what shade of green you can be.

3.    Offer solutions—not problems. Many green messages focus on global doom and requisite sacrifice. Unless a real test occurs—say $5-per-gallon gasoline—most won’t respond to fear. As Harvard Business School’s legendary Ted Levitt taught, people who buy drills need holes, not drills.

4.    It’s personal relevance. Consumers’ scope of sustainability often is contained within their four walls of home, office or car. Make them feel they personally make a difference and, then, part of something important.

5.    Grassroots create messengers. Early adopters and the early majority lead in knowledge and in telling others how they feel about it (LOHAS Consumer Trends Report, 2006). These are your green envoys.

6.    Be green inside and out. It’s not just your products. Make it systemwide, from paper reduction and energy usage to telecommuting. Measure changes—you are held to a higher standard if you declare green.

7.    Create third-party credibility. Seek certification, such as SmartWay, LEED, Energy Star or Green Seal. Apply for Federal Trade Commission approvals or become acquainted with the new Environmental Product Declaration System.

8.    Recognize the triple bottom line. The United Nations says sustainable development meets present needs without compromising future generations’ ability to meet needs. Consider business sustainability as economic, environmental and societal benefits resulting from your company’s ethical efforts.

From GoodGuide to Green Wiki, advocates are shining the light on green goods. While consumers may not yet demand the same of themselves, they certainly expect a transparent transformation of the marketplace. PRN

This article was written by Lore McManus Solo, principal & VP/PR, Strategic America and a Worldcom Partner. She can be reached at

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