Thursday, January 25, 2007


Over at the Boston Globe's Business Filter blog, Maura Welch has a piece on "greenwashing." Maura links to PSFK for an explanation:

‘Greenwash’ is a pejorative term that some environmentalists and critics use to describe the activity of brands and corporations that portray a positive public image of putatively environmentally unsound practices. Greenwashing can take many guises ranging from lies of omission to misleading labelling systems; from empty mission statements and voluntary codes of conduct to sustainability reports that offer only partial disclosure and transparency right through to the arbitrary sponsorship of good causes and events.

It’s a whitewash of the green variety, a sham, a hoax, a scandal that dazzles consumers with the blinding beauty that is GREEN - the holy grail of sustainability - that warm feeling you get when you do something ‘good’. The power of ‘green’ is so tremendous that it has often been channelled into another symbol of hope: the good old green American $: a fast ‘buck’ or two billion wrapped up in a green blanket of hope.

As consumers have become increasingly aware of environmental and social issues, some brands have found it hard to resist exploiting and profiting from the emerging ‘green market’. It is big business.

From there I found a link to an article from The Green Life that identifies their top 10 greenwashing villains. It should surprise no one to find BP ("Beyond Petroleum" my butt) and TruGreen (formerly ChemLawn) on the list.

Being green is a positive thing in the market, so it's no surprise that companies will take a few minor, and probably inconsequential, steps toward environmental sustainability and then spend even more money talking about it. I'm not sure how savvy consumers actually are about this.

BP, for example, does a little bit of work on alternative fuels, and then runs "Beyond Petroleum" ads everywhere. (It's a bit hard to get a sense of average consumer sentiment about them here in Houston, where "BP" these days makes locals think not so much of "British Petroleum" or "Beyond Petroleum" but rather "Blown-up Plant," and a series of news stories about just how badly they've done at keeping their facilities safe.)

Do people get a warm fuzzy about BP that they don't get about ExxonMobil or Shell? Does anyone see the TruGreen truck and think that it does anything but spray chemicals all over the lawn?

I'm not sure. And, though I have my views on environmentalism and business practices, they're not really relevant here; there's no standard measure of the point at which a company's policies become certifiably environmentally friendly.

Ultimately customers who care about this need to do a little research and figure it out for themselves. But as marketers, what do we do when our employers or clients want to start greenwashing a set of practices that are anything but friendly to the environment?

I guess that what we do is a decision for each of us. There are only a few areas of marketing I'd call outright evil (marketing to young kids being one of them, for me), and I'm not ready to put this one into that category. But sometimes greenwashing really is plain old lying, and that's tough to defend.

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