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Avoiding greenwash

Environmental awareness is on the rise. Marketers have been quick to recognise and seize upon the Zeitgeist. The trouble is, some green claims just don't wash.


July 28, 2008

5 Min Read
Avoiding greenwash
Avoiding greenwash

Environmental awareness is on the rise. Marketers have been quick to recognise and seize upon the Zeitgeist. The trouble is, some green claims just don’t wash.

For every green crusader set upon making the world a better-cleaner-place, you will find an army of the ill-informed apathetic whose opinion and attention can swing from one extreme to the other.

Right now, in the media at least, it looks like the green crusaders are winning the battle for hearts and minds. But on the ground there will always remain a fair amount of resistance to change. According to a recent report, Turning Point or Tipping Point, produced by Ipsos Mori, the majority of people in the UK remain unconvinced that climate change is caused by human activity-with scientists blamed for exaggerating the scale of the problem.

Those that are convinced by anthropogenic climate change want government and business to take a stronger lead. However, consumers are also “cautious of commercial claims, and businesses face challenges convincing consumers that [their] efforts are beyond ‘spin’,” the report says.

This public scepticism spells bad news for the green crusaders because, unfortunately for them, spin-or ‘greenwash’-is all too common. Consumer awareness and confidence in a product or company can be undone in a stroke if the public gets whiff of a greenwash marketing campaign. And that, in turn, will damage the genuine efforts of others.

“Most greenwash is due to ignorance and or sloppiness rather than malicious intent,” says Futerra, a communications agency that specialises in promoting sustainable business practices, in a recently published Greenwash Guide. “Businesses and advertising agencies can take simple steps to prevent greenwash slipping through.”

Hoping that advertisers and marketing departments will recognise the commercial benefits of being totally honest when it comes to holding back on the greenwash, is not just wishful thinking, it’s plain naive. The truth of the matter is that change is only likely to happen with the application of both carrot and stick. Fortunately for the green crusader, advertising regulators are starting to wield the stick.

In the UK, for instance, the Advertising Standards Authority created a clause for Environmental Claims in 1995 and since 1998 the government has published a non-binding Green Claims Code which advises advertisers on how best to make claims.

“Being criticised by the ASA can be hugely costly as the company is unlikely to receive a refund for any advertising space or broadcasting slots it’s already paid for,” says Futerra. “This alone should be a disincentive to greenwash, yet we find year on year the ASA have received more complaints on environmental claims and upheld more of those complaints, thereby forcing the advertiser to cancel the campaign.”

In fairness to the network carriers and handset suppliers not a single complaint has been upheld by the ASA regarding false environmental claims made in their advertising. The majority of complaints made and upheld against carriers and handset suppliers centre around a variety of misleading tariff or service claims. This is almost certainly down to the fact that a carrier is much more likely to trumpet a fresh service or tariff and a handset supplier more likely to promote new ‘groundbreaking’ features rather than their environmental performance.

Still, it’s early days in this industry, and one misplaced greenwash campaign could easily undo all the previous good work. “Greenwash destroys the very market it hopes to exploit,” says Futerra. “Surveys in the UK and USA show this undermining of consumer confidence is well underway. In fact, some show that nine out of ten of us are sceptical about green or climate change information from companies and governments.” According to Futerra, a whopping 80 per cent of the people want to see companies back up ethical claims with proof.

“The continued greening of business requires the continuing, compelling business case of market demand,” states Futerra. “The terrible irony is that greenwash may put itself out of business by causing consumers to mistrust every green claim, no matter how justified.”

In the process of putting together its guide to greenwash Futerra spoke with the top ten UK advertising agencies. Eight out of the ten have internal sustainability policies, only four agencies agreed to comment on their products and only one said it had any plans to extend their current green policy to cover the client side of the business, namely how products are advertised. The green crusader may well be winning the battle for hearts and minds in the media at the moment. But the war is far from won. In fact, in reality, it has only just begun.

Futerra lists the following ten signs to avoid/look out for when it comes to greenwashed ad campaigns:

1. Fluffy language; using cliche green laden ‘eco-terminology’ that has no clear meaning. Prefixing words with green or eco are usually dead give-aways.

2. Green products from a dirty company; a firm might well sell a product or service that is largely environmentally benign, but it needs to ensure that its own house is in order.

3. Suggestive pictures; a mobile handset with flowers blooming from the ear-piece would be plain nonsense.

4. Irrelevant claims; emphasising one tiny green attribute when everything else is un-green.

5. Best in class; declaring that you are best in class when you are in fact only slightly greener than a decidedly ungreen bunch.

6. Just not credible; wildly exaggerated claims of the environmental benefits of your product.

7. Gobbledygook; using jargon or information that would only make sense to a scientist or radio engineer.

8. Imaginary friends; claiming to partner with a label or environmental charity that is non-existent or a PR front.

9. No proof; making claiming without being able to back them up.

10. Out-right lying; it’s only a lie if you get found out, right?

Visit www.futerra.co.uk for info on combating greenwash

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