Wearing the Green Mantle Carefully

Many companies now emphasizing their green bona fides have found it can backfire if the makeover is more PR than operational. For example, as the green movement got traction in the 1990s, one firm boldly launched a corporate responsibility report in which it announced: “We will … integrate … social and environmental considerations into our internal management and value system” … “[We have] enhanced our efforts to engage external stakeholders on human rights, biodiversity, indigenous rights, transparency and performance measurement.” That was Enron.
There’s a lesson here. Many self-proclaimed “socially responsible” companies, from Nike, to Ben & Jerry’s to Odwalla have seen their corporate images singed by vengeful NGOs and a disappointed public when their rhetoric eclipsed their reality.
Consider The Body Shop, the British cosmetic company founded by the late Anita Roddick. She actively promoted herself as the “Queen of Green.” But her company was left in disarray when an exposé published in one of her favorite magazines, Business Ethics, revealed the problematic practices beneath the green patina: Roddick was proven to have lifted the name, store design, and products from the San Francisco Body Shop that started years before her copycat; her “natural” products were filled with chemical dyes and fragrances; it faced hundreds of millions of dollars in franchise fraud disputes; and its environmental and labor standards were considered retrograde. Corporate responsibility was more a marketing tool than a reflection of its operations. The company’s stock cratered, costing shareholders $600 million, two thirds of her US stores closed, and Roddick was eventually ousted as operating head. The Body Shop has never fully recovered its former luster.
Green marketing is potentially a great marketing and branding tool—if the ethic of responsibility is entrenched into the character of a company and its leaders. Claim only what you can do—and then do it.

Jon Entine is Northlich’s senior counselor of Northlich and Rick Miller its president of public relations.