Clear Green Marketing
"Green washing" may be the dirtiest word in marketing. Instead of changing their operations, these businesses throw a thick coat of green-seeming brand paint over it so no one can see what's really going on inside. It's the opposite of transparency. But that's not responsible business, and in the long run, marketers who greenwash are only making customers more mistrustful and immune to their own messages, be they from marketing, PR, or the local green-eared painter.
How can responsible businesses communicate what they're doing transparently, and should they even try? We asked some of the industry's top sustainability advocates, and this is what they said.
Q: How should companies discuss their environmental initiatives? Should they use it in their marketing at all? Does it benefit the brand?
Chet Dalzell, direct marketing industry public relations professional and author of the "Marketing Sustainably" blog:
Many companies, including many publicly held companies, have embraced environmental finance and environmental stewardship within their business practices. When credible, these companies continue to report dividends—review "Best Places to Work," "Most Admired Companies" and "Trust Index" listings and you'll inevitably find environmental initiatives as part of their public reporting.
Bringing such environmental performance to marketing is a brand decision. Consumers are more sophisticated and more skeptical than they have been in years. "Greenwashing" is spotted in a minute. So businesses that take the green claims route need to document such claims and offer evidence. Relying on perception or faulty assumptions too often fail the greenwashing test.
Meta Brophy, director, procurement operations, Consumer Reports:
Consumer Reports does not include information about environmental initiatives in our marketing materials. We don't wish to deter the audience from reading and responding to the marketing message, please subscribe or donate. At this point in time, environmental initiatives that have been incorporated into producing our marketing material have been "accepted" by our customers, if you will, because our customers have responded. In that way, the changes that we have made to materials, methods, and specifications along the way have provided benefit to our brand and to our customers.
Q: How do you decide which environmental information to reveal to the public? How do you ensure that is accurate?
Senny Boone, SVP corporate and social responsibility, DMA
For each of these questions, marketers need to first ensure they are familiar with the Federal Trade Commission's guidelines for green marketing. The choice of whether to use it as part of the brand is dependent upon the organization. We have members who are active environmental organizations themselves and do a great deal of work to show the public what they are accomplishing and how they can support and participate such work. We urge members to let consumers know that their mail pieces are able to be recycled and are not "junk mail", see our website www.recycleplease.org. Generally, demonstrating good corporate and social responsibility that is genuine is a net positive.
Consumer Reports does not endorse or advertise products other than our own. We may label a marketing piece with information about recycled content, which our paper vendor has confirmed and documented. We may include the RecyclePlease logo on a component because of its educational benefit.
If positive changes in environmental performance in product design, production or packaging are made, it certainly can be advantageous to share these advances with customers. But with caution—environmental performance is an expectation or baseline many consumers already accept and expect—and probably most are unwilling to pay anything more than a small premium (if any at all) for such advances. Also, environmental improvements as a by-product of changes made for other purposes (such as for improved efficiency or cost savings) should be presented truthfully as such. Consumers don't mind a cost-saving move on the part of a business also paying an environmental dividend—it just needs to documented and accurately described as such.
Q: Do you strive for transparency to the public, or is there another organizing principle to how you communicate these things?
Yes, transparency to the public is one of the principles we strive for. We have an environmental policy generator that companies may review which can show the key areas for a company's review, we also follow what we call the Green 15, a set of environmental goals for paper-based marketing and we are planning to release a digital version soon as well.
The public is one audience—transparency trumps being opaque almost all the time. But business leaders may also deem it important to act in an environmentally sensitive manner for communication with other audiences—namely employees and investors, and possibly partners and suppliers, and possibly non-governmental organizations who may have their business and brands in focus. The order or priority for communication among these audiences for any one business may be radically different.
"Going public"—the widest audience—is truly a brand, culture and business decision. Some companies may opt for more private environmental initiatives focused on their employees and their hometowns or home states, for example. Some companies wish to position themselves as a socially responsible investment target. A discipline to measure and document environmental impacts—according to global standards (such as International Standards Organization documentation)—provides guidance for how such environmental performance, improvements and reporting should be handled.
Q: Are there any key missteps you see organizations make in publicizing or discussing their environmental policies?
As you know, we pursue companies who are engaged in bad marketing practices as a part of our self-regulation. I have seen a few complaints over the years where a company is making claims that are not supported by proof, such as that by purchasing a certain product or service, a tree will be saved, or that a product has incredible benefits for the environment. Further, there have been a lot of attacks in the past on marketing and direct mail as being unfriendly to the environment and that a certain product or service would solve that by eliminating marketing—and that is not justified since paper can be recycled and the marketing community is highly aware of the need to ensure they protect environmental resources.
Visit sinsofgreenwashing.com (most recent report, 2010). Unfortunately, few green claims are sin-free—though a good number are mostly sin-free. My least favorite "green" claim is banks and utilities making "go green, go digital" claims with their efforts to get customers to enroll in electronic bill payment programs. The "paper/print" versus "digital" choice is widely misunderstood—and documentation comparing the world's paper and print lifecycle in use of natural resources to the world's digital infrastructure lifecycle really hasn't been accomplished with definitive gains attributable to one or the other.
To be responsible in multichannel environments, marketers should made responsible sourcing decisions in both their print and digital marketing. Are paper and paper products purchased from sustainable forestry certified sources? Is the energy that runs the data center originate from renewable sources? These are the types of business decisions brands must make when weighing green marketing claims in either print or digital marketing.
Q: Do you feel like companies get a brand/customer "pay off" for being environmentally principled?
What benefit or pay off companies realize for being environmentally principled undoubtedly varies quite a lot. Consumer Reports and others have found that after the primary reward of making better choices and doing a better job, the big payoffs come by eliminating waste and being more efficient. That saves money, considerable money over time. That is why marketing tests go out with specifications that we altered a while back—on lighter paper, in envelopes with open windows, in smaller sizes, with fewer pages. That payoff may not be public, but it gets great reviews in the CFO's office.
In my mind, embracing environmental performance as a bottom-line factor—greater efficiency, less cost, perhaps as a competitive opportunity—is when it makes the most business sense to pursue this path. ... Which means, just about all the time! Earth Days come and go, but sustainability is a 7/365 concern that matters to management, employees, supply chains and customers. It's a journey, not a finish line. And it can be a great motivator for employees when it is recognized and rewarded.