Don’t Get Stuck in the ‘Greenwashing’ Swamp

If you talk to marketers who are gun-shy about green marketing, it’s likely because they’ve been accused of “greenwashing:” putting a green spin on something that’s not all that green when you look closely. Greenwash companies-”or even whole industries-”can experience serious backlash, and then it becomes much harder to convince consumers that the company has begun to work seriously on greening itself.

When Nestlé ran an ad promoting one of its bottled water brands as an eco-friendly alternative in the Toronto Globe and Mail, five major environmental groups lodged an official complaint charging violation of the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards as well as environmental claims guidelines set by Canada’s Competition Bureau and the Canadian Standards Association.

The legal complaint cites three claims in the ad:

  1. “Most water bottles avoid landfill sites and are recycled”;

  2. “Bottled water is the most environmentally responsible consumer product in the world”;

  3. “Nestlé Pure Life is a Healthy, Eco-Friendly Choice.”

In the statement, the coalition said,

“Based on our review of the representations made by Nestlé Waters in this advertisement, it is clear that they are not supported by fact-”we believe this is an outrageous example of greenwashing,” says Beatrice Olivastri, CEO, Friends of the Earth. “The truth is that many water bottles are not being recycled, a phenomena that Nestlé Waters itself-”in direct contradiction to its own advertisement-”admits in its 2008 Corporate Citizenship Report.” Olivastri points out that Nestlé Waters states in the report that many of its own bottles end up in the solid waste-stream and that many of them are not recycled even though they are recyclable.

Of course, Nestlé could have easily avoided the specific Canadian complaint (and resultant bad publicity) by being more careful in its copywriting. It wouldn’t have helped with the growing perception that bottled water is inappropriate in most situations precisely because of its severe environmental consequences-”but rewriting the claims as follows could have rendered this particular complaint moot:

  1. Many most water bottles avoid landfill sites and are recycled”;

  2. “Bottled water could be considered an is the most environmentally responsible consumer product, especially in parts of the world where tap water is not safe to drink“;

  3. Pure, clean water such as Nestlé Pure Life is a Healthy, Eco-Friendly Choice”.

By contrast, no amount of copy tweaking could save the nuclear power industry from being accused of greenwashing. The New York Times reported on initiatives by two different European power companies, offering so-called “green” nuclear power to their customers. Having been involved in the safe energy movement since 1972, I posted this response the same day (and this was before Fukushima):

Anyone who buys into the lie that nuclear is green needs to take a serious look at environmental impact of…

  • Mining and milling and transporting and processing uranium

  • Radiation leakage during normal operation

  • Catastrophic environmental consequences of a major accident or serious terrorism incident (and in the U.S., no meaningful financial liability on the part of the utilities)

  • Need to isolate extremely large quantities of toxic wastes for a quarter of a million years! (How many objects survive from even 1/10th as long ago?)

I’m not the only one. A March 6, 2012, Google search for “nuclear greenwashing” (no quotes) returned 2,470,000 results, including such respected sites as Der Spiegel, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, PR Watch, Greenpeace, and Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)

Still, even very mild claims can lead to greenwashing accusations. Lexus was forced by British authorities to yank an ad containing the seemingly innocuous claim that one of its cars was “perfect for today’s climate.” Regulators felt the ad “was likely to reinforce the impression that the car caused little or no harm to the environment and was unlikely to clarify for readers that the headline claim was intended to refer to the economy as well as the environment.”

To me, suppressing that ad is more than a bit over the top; that phrase could be interpreted in a dozen different ways that have nothing to do with climate change. It’s like the lawyers who force a peanut processor to warn on the label that the package of peanuts contains peanuts. And with this kind of backlash, it’s understandable that companies are reluctant to make green claims.

So how do you avoid being tarred as a greenwasher? It’s very simple. Create genuinely eco-friendly innovations in your processes, sales and support structure, marketing, supply chain, and every other area of business; recognize that going green is a process, not a destination; and don’t say anything that isn’t totally true and verifiable.

TerraChoice, a consulting firm specializing in environmental marketing, lists “six sins of greenwashing” on its website:

  • Hidden trade-offs that highlight leadership on one environmental issue while burying areas with less progress

  • Lack of proof for your claims (as in the Nestlé example, above)

  • Vagueness of catchall terms like “eco-friendly,” “all-natural,” etc.

  • Irrelevance (such as a claim that could apply to every product in the category-”being free of a banned substance, for example)

  • False claims

  • Green claims for a harmful product that shouldn’t be offered in the first place (e.g., tobacco, toxic lawn chemicals)

Marketing consultant and copywriter Shel Horowitz is the author of Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green-”from which this article is adapted-”and seven other books. Horowitz also writes the internationally syndicated column, Green And Profitable (