While interest is growing on the part of both mainstream and social media for environmentally related news stories, journalists are understandably “show me” skeptics when it comes to business claims about green operating principles and actions.
The media’s skepticism may be well founded. Our firm’s own 2008 Makovsky Green Gap Survey, conducted by Harris Interactive, found that while majorities of American business leaders are personally convinced of the grave risks of climate change and the benefits of pro-environmental policies, they are failing to fully translate those convictions into corporate action.
Similarly, a McKinsey Quarterly survey conducted in December of 2007 reported that nearly 70% of corporate executives saw climate change as an important consideration for managing corporate reputation and brands, and over half said it was important to also address climate change in product development, supply chain and other areas. Yet, relatively few CEOs were making climate change an important item on their corporate agenda.
So, what is a public relations professional to do?
First, they must recognize the value in the axiom “Actions speak louder than words.” The media and other key constituents can easily see beyond lip service and token gestures—so-called greenwashing. Companies today are routinely rated by media and other organizations such as asset management firms on their commitments to environmental responsibility. For example, Domini Social Investments, a pioneer in social and environmentally responsible investing, will voice its concern to corporate managers and publish a listing of those companies it views as offenders along with the issues of concern. Such lists are often referenced by the media.
Going green has also found proponents among luxury goods manufacturers. The Wall Street Journal reported on a study by the World Wildlife Fund that singled out the luxury-goods business as being out of touch with eco-conscious trends and with younger, more socially conscious customers. In response, makers of luxury items are introducing new green products such as the "Ecotech Solar" men’s jacket from Ermenegildo Zegna, with solar panels on its sleeves that can be used to recharge a battery and heat up the jacket's collar.
Naturally, this rush to embrace all things green has led to a rise in the number of skeptics and watchdogs, particularly in the blogosphere, challenging green claims. Sites such as “The Greenwash Brigade” regularly take companies to task for misleading claims. A recent headline in USA Today, “Green claims by marketers go unchecked,” is critical of the Federal Trade Commission for its lack of oversight of green claims by manufacturers.
Wal-Mart, seizing both thought leadership and business leadership on this front, announced its plans to assess the manufacturing processes of thousands of its suppliers in areas such as water use and carbon dioxide. Over time it may result in changing the products that are sold on its shelves.
It’s clear: Words and slogans alone won’t overcome skepticism. Only sincere and definitive actions will result in a credible standing among consumers and important constituents such as the mainstream and social media, employees and investors.
Robbin S. Goodman is Executive Vice President and a partner at Makovsky + Company, a co-founder of Interraction, which is a consortium of experts from a variety of business disciplines working together to address the risks and opportunities presented by climate change.