OAKLAND, CA — It's a tricky situation that's long vexed companies in all markets, but is increasingly complicating activity in the green arena: How do you sell products to customers who want what you have but don't necessarily trust you, while also avoiding running afoul of regulations?
That, in a nutshell, was the topic at hand during a panel discussion webcast today by GreenBiz.com. "The Green Marketing Landscape: Ratings, Labels, and Certifications" brought together experts in shopper behavior, legal issues behind green advertising, and green product certification to explore the pitfalls companies face, and how to avoid them.
Stephen Wenc, the president of UL Environment, the new green arm of the well established certifying body Underwriters Laboratories, laid out four basic challenges to effective green marketing:
• Lack of credibility or trust by consumers and end-users
• Confusion regarding green or sustainable product claims
• Reputational risk from "misleading claims"
• Liability risk from "greenwashing" under FTC Green Guides
Or, as Suzanne Shelton, the head of market research firm The Shelton Group (and a regular GreenBiz.com blogger), summed it up: Shoppers want green products, but they don't know how to define what green product is. They don't trust manufacturers to tell them the truth about how green their products are, but they're turning to manufacturers because they don't have anyone else to turn to. "However, in the face of this they're poised and ready to punish manufacturers who lie to them," Shelton added -- both by boycotting their products and telling peers to do so as well.
And it's not just individuals who are looking to rein in green claims on store shelves. Brooks Beard, a partner at law firm Morrison Foerster, showed how the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has recently begun taking legal action against greenwashers. After almost a decade of no anti-greenwashing lawsuits (following 37 such moves between 1990 and 2000), the FTC this year has done so twice: once pertaining to biodegradability claims in June 2009, and once with "100 percent bamboo" claims in August.
Beard offered four steps to avoid claims -- and possible legal charges -- of greenwashing:
• Pick the products or services you promote on green grounds with care
• Be specific with word choices (focus on the specifics rather than the broad)
• Be specific about what part of your product or packaging is green
• Substantiate, substantiate, substantiate -- always back up your claims
The free hour-long webcast, which includes much more detail on the dangers of and solutions to greenwashing, as well as an extensive Q&A session, is archived and available for free listening at tinyURL.com/GreenBizULEwebcast (registration required).
Photo CC-licensed by The Consumerist.