Something very interesting is happening in Californian courts. In a class action suit filed in a District Court in , a group of individuals claim that the bottled water maker, FIJI Water Company, has been misleading customers by making false carbon offset claims. Their cause for complaint is that FIJI Water’s assertion that it makes a “carbon negative” product is blatantly untrue. “Carbon negative” would mean that FIJI removes more carbon from the atmosphere than they generate, which is based more on clever accounting than reality. In another case, SC Johnson, the household chemicals giant, was sued for placing a non-verified eco-label on their cleaning fluid, Windex. The label, Greenlist, created a false impression of being third-party approved when it was only meant for internal use. What links the two cases is that companies are being held accountable for false “green” claims, “eco” exaggerations and deceptive advertisements , otherwise known as “greenwashing”.
The rise of legal action against greenwashers should make businesses everywhere sit up and take notice. In an evaluation of 4,744 “green” products for the home sold in the US and Canada in 2010, nearly 95% of them were guilty of incorrect or false advertising. This is based on field data collected by TerraChoice, the marketing arm of Underwriters Laboratories. TerraChoice probably knows what they are talking about, given that they identified the now famous “Seven Sins” of Greenwashing. From selling outright fibs, false labelling and making unverified claims to the more insidious hiding trade-offs, stating vague benefits and touting the lesser of two evils, marketers can, and have, used every trick in the book to sell “green” products. Consumers are much more wary today and companies find that poorly managed sustainability messages soon turn right around. BP, for example, pushed its “BP stands for Beyond Petroleum” hard, only to discover, that BP, in consumer’s minds, stood for Broken Pipe and some great material for spoof videos.
For companies that genuinely want to make a difference, greenwashing is dangerous and has the potential to derail the business-sustainability partnership. Consumers are indicating that they are suffering from “eco-fatigue”, tired of being bombarded with “green” claims based on hot air and slick marketing. For a large set of customers, green is greenwash. In a broad study of 55,000 respondents, 64% of buyers viewed sustainability as a marketing tool and nothing more. Does this mean that marketers should give up?
This is a critical time for sustainability communications. Customers still want to use their purchasing power to change the current way business is done. They want businesses to be honest with them. For companies that believe that sustainability is fundamental to their survival, here are three cardinal rules to avoid the dreaded “greenwashing” label.
- People, Planet, Profit: Being “green” at the expense of your employees, suppliers and local communities is fundamentally opposed to the principles of sustainability. In certain hotels, guests were offered rebates for not having their room cleaned everyday, in the name of “going green”. Housekeeping staff point out that this tactic is just a way to reduce the number of employees on the payroll and increase the burden on a smaller staff. Such initiatives reek of greenwash.
- Proof, proof and more proof: Be prepared to back up all your claims. Seek established third-party verification. Explain your calculations and assumptions in the public domain. And most importantly, show both the negatives and positives on your balance sheet. When everything is hunky-dory, customers know something is not being disclosed.
- Use the Green Guides: The Federal Trade Commission provides a “glossary” of green buzzwords, known as the Green Guides. Although its usage is not a legal requirement, they do provide an objective benchmark of advertising and marketing terms that can protect a company in the event of litigation.
Choosing your marketing partner can make all the difference. Just don’t pick these guys. Do enjoy their movie, though, that is available for rent on their website. It makes you want to laugh and cry at the same time.