Greenwashing: Is this business green or only greenish?

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Green has many meanings. Green can mean fresh. But green cheese is spoiled. A green employee could be a rookie on the job, or a staff member who got sick eating the green cheese. A green bottom line is flush with profits. A green business is environmentally friendly. Of course there is the actual color green. And then . . . there's greenwash. Greenwash or green sheen occurs when a company understands that being green is good for business, therefore markets itself as green without making any real efforts toward being environmentally friendly.

There was a time when a business could probably get away with a mild greenwash for awhile. But we've learned in recent years -- and political campaigns – that if you say something that is provably false, you could find yourself outed on a thousand blogs. Even a local mom-pop shop may find itself the star of YouTube if they promote themselves as being committed to recycling, but the dumpster behind the store reveals otherwise. That's a marketing backfire. In other words, those who are not going to walk the walk, should refrain from talking the talk.

Here are some of the ways businesses indulge in greenwashing.

  • Lack of independent certification. They market their products or businesses as green without verification by a third party. Anyone can slap "green" on a label. But the label without proof doesn't make the products eco-friendly, and the lack of a label doesn't make them eco-hostile. Example: Baking soda can replace a number of commercial products, from toothpaste to barbecue cleaner to bug bite ointment. But you don't hear anyone calling it green. On the other hand, research shows that one percent of the products that do call themselves green have no proof whatsoever, and a closer look reveals that for most of them, there appears to be no truth in their advertising. Your company may indeed be green, and the public wants to believe you, so find a way within your industry to get an independent certification. Then use that seal of approval in your marketing.
  • Lack of relevance. Some companies latch onto phrases that are irrelevant, in the hope that the public won't notice. For example: have you heard the term "CFC-free?" As in chlorofluorocarbons? CFCs are the chemicals blamed for helping to deplete the ozone layer. Being CFC-free is a good thing. But . . . it's also required by law, since CFCs were banned three decades ago. So marketing a business as green because it is CFC-free is a little like congratulating yourself for not robbing any banks today.
  • Miscellaneous. There are a number of other ways companies try to sneak under the green radar, like using vague, but popular adjectives such as "chemical-free" and "all-natural." These two terms attract attention, but is anything really chemical free? After all, water is a chemical, air is a chemical, and people are walking chemical cocktails. "All-natural" sounds great but there are many toxic substances that occur naturally - for example, uranium - that hardly fall into the category of green. Then there are the products that are marketed as green because they solve one problem even though they create another. A few years back the price of gas in California rose significantly because a state law required the use of MTBE in fuel. The California Air Resources Board credited the reformulated gas for providing cleaner air. Was it green? Actually, it was closer to stagnant brown, since it was soon discovered that while MTBE left the air cleaner, it polluted the water with possible human carcinogens.

A recent study by the Grocery Manufacturer's Association and PricewaterhouseCoopers shows that companies that report genuine sustainable practices tend to do well financially. Sustainability, says the report, is great for enhancing your company's reputation. In a press release, Lisa Feigen Dugal, a PwC advisory leader, said, "It's well known that sustainability initiatives can be a great brand and reputation enhancer, but we've discovered they're much more. Positive reporting on these initiatives can enhance a company's bottom line and shareholder value."

Sounds good. But marketing wizards recommend that if you hope to sell your products and services with a tinge of green, start by getting your ducks in a row. Ensure that you are compliant with environmental regulations in your industry. Get independent certification for your claims whenever possible. If you say you are green, you may be inviting attention, so it's important to clean up your backyard, literally and figuratively. The bottom line is, the public wants to believe the claims made about products they like, and in many cases, they are willing to pay more and drive across town to buy them. So smart marketers will make sure that when they paint their businesses green, the green goes all the way to the bone.


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