Peeling back the green paint: Getting rid of greenwash

Katherine Irvine

Greenwash paintGreenwashing has become a corporate faux pas over the last few years as consumers and industry regulators have smartened up to the misleading environmentally friendly claims of big business.    Shell, the giant of the oil industry, is only too aware of the embarrassment greenwashing can have on corporate image. 

They were caught out back in 2000 trying to cover up oil spills in the Niger Delta and more recently U.K Advertising Standards Authority ruled their advertisements promoting a sustainable Canadian Oil Sands project were “misleading”. Yet, greenwashing is continuing to become a bigger problem as companies try to meet an ever-increasing consumer demand for sustainable products. 

The definition of greenwash seems to be growing as businesses think of new ways to spin the sustainability message.  Futerra, an agency specializing in corporate responsibility and communicating sustainability, has compiled the “10 Signs of Greenwash” to help consumers spot greenwash.  “Eco-friendly” has become one of the buzz terms, Futerra warns, that is essentially meaningless unless it is backed up by facts.  Similarly, using images of green untouched landscapes carry little weight unless the company can directly link those images with their brand. 

Futerra also highlight the problem of “best in class” where companies rate themselves as greener than the rest even in an industry when business practices are environmentally suspect.  Shell may promote their Canadian project as greener that the rest but in reality their Canadian oil sands project ultimately damaging to the environment.

It seems that big business has not been put off by growing awareness and instead the problem of greenwash continues to gain momentum.  Green products were once specialty products, purchased by a small market of environmentalists.  However today the green factor has major appeal for many consumers. Consumers who choose green products over other alternatives now represent 40% of the American market according to Cone’s “Green Gap 2Organic food008 survey”. 

Even in the current economic climate, attitudes toward environmentally friendly products remain strong as industries such as organic foods have nearly tripled since 1997.  All these factors have contributed to growing greenwash as companies use the green factor as a shallow marketing ploy without recognizing the importance the environment has on long term business operations.  At the same time consumers are only becoming more aware of greenwash and more able to see through unsubstantiated claims.    

This is why consumers, regulatory bodies and the media have called for business to use clear communications strategy.  Saying “we’re green” will no longer cut it and instead consumers are calling for environmental messages to use relevant language and be directly related to the product.  Providing information to do with materiality, resource allocation and scale of results of any environmental initiative are effective communication techniques that will help foster consumer trust.

Marks & Spencer provides information to their consumers about where their products have been sourced from.  They have an “egg tracker” website where a consumer can trace the eggs they purchased in store to the farm they came from.  This personalized way of treescommunicating the environmental message is fun and effective and is backed up by facts rather than empty promises. 

Initiatives such as the “egg tracker” website will (hopefully) ensure that Marks & Spencer do not make it on to other websites such as greenwashingindex.com and Greenpeace’s stopgreenwash.com.  These websites catch out the worst of the green washers by allowing anyone to upload, rate and discuss misleading or exaggerated green claims.  According to one of the creators of the Greenwashing Index Kim Sheehand, consumers react negatively to words such as “eco” and “earth” and images of trees, flowers and childlike renderings.

Hopefully the lessons learnt by businesses such as Shell will resonate in industry and the vague, green tinged marketing campaigns will come to an end.  Organisations such as Futerra and greenwashingindex.org have helped to peel back the green paint of business practices but ultimately it is up to the consumer to put their money with the mouth is and make greenwash a thing of the past.

More cool stuff on Celsias:
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  • Posted on Aug. 19, 2009. Listed in:

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