The State of Green Business 2009: Green Marketing Suffers a Failure to Communicate

The State of Green Business 2009: Green Marketing Suffers a Failure to Communicate

[Editor's Note: To celebrate the launch of our second annual State of Green Business Report, every day for the next two weeks, we'll be running through one of the big trends that are shaping the future of the greening of mainstream business. You can download the report for free from GreenBiz.com.]

A rise in green marketing efforts has been matched by a nearly equal rise in claims of greenwashing by activists,bloggers, and others. Increased concerns about energy, climate, toxics, and other environmental issues have led some of the largest consumer brands to enter the green marketplace, prodded by retailers such as Wal-Mart, which has been pushing suppliers to offer affordable green products. But with the new players and products has come a new wave of claims about greenwashing, or at least public frustration that companies aren't doing enough, aren't telling their stories well, or both.

Green claims have continued to grow. An Earth Day report revealed that 2007 saw the largest number of green trademark applications since 2000, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office: More than 300,000 applications for green brand names, logos, and tag lines. Companies like Apple, Canon, Clorox, andFiji Water entered the green marketplace for the first time, raising awareness -- but also questions and,sometimes, controversy. Given the lack of definitions, just about anything can be claimed as "green" -- or "greenwash" -- further muddying the waters.

One problem is that consumers are ambivalent at best about shopping green. They claim they want to, but they also say that they don't trust companies. For example, surveys show that the number of people concerned about climate change continues to grow, and that consumers believe businesses should bear the heaviest load in addressing it, but they aren't convinced that the business sector is doing as much as it should.Marketers aiming to shift their audiences toward making greener purchasing decisions are coming up short for the vast majority of the population, although a small subset is green enough to help spread the environmental awareness on their own, according to one study. Although about half of those in another survey said they trust companies to be truthful in their environmental marketing and believe companies are accurately presenting information about their impact on the earth, nearly 60 percent would like to see more government regulation of green claims to ensure they are accurate. Given the Federal Trade Commission's review of green marketing claims launched last year,they just might get it.

The upshot is that despite the continued upswing in green business activity, there's no concomitant rise in consumer awareness or trust. Case in point: With no prompting, nearly half of all respondents to one survey were essentially unable to name a single feature of a green home— not solar power, compact fluorescent light bulbs, home recycling, or EnergyStar-labeled appliances. And when readers of Brandchannel.com were asked what brand they think of as truly green or going green, the top answer: none at all.