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Two Steps Forward

Inside the “greenmuting” paradox

What's worse — saying too little or two much about your company's green goals?



Adapted from "Strategies for the Green Economy," by Joel Makower, published recently by McGraw-Hill.

“Greenwashing” was coined by Greenpeace in the early 1990s to describe “cynical, superficial, public relations marketing” aimed at projecting a falsely benign environmental corporate image. The nonprofit website SourceWatch defines it as “the unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue by a company, an industry, a government, a politician or even a non-government organization to create a pro-environmental image, sell a product or a policy, or to try and rehabilitate their standing with the public and decision makers after being embroiled in controversy.”

However defined, charges of “greenwash” have been on the move lately, in lockstep with the rebirth of green market- ing. Moreover, like so many other things green, “greenwash” is as vague a term as there is, existing largely in the minds of the beholders. Almost anything can be dismissed as “green- wash” these days, with the odds of garnering that moniker increasing proportionately with the size and stature of the company in question. For many activists, there is nothing that a big company — particularly a brand leader — can do, environmentally speaking, to curry favor. Whatever they do is “greenwash.”

Activists need not let down their guard, but they do need to lighten up.

Through most of the 1990s and beyond, “greenwashing” was considered inside baseball, a conversation held largely among a scrum of environmental activists and corporate critics to describe offending companies. By the end of 2007, however, it began to break into the mainstream. There is now a Greenwashing Index, a Greenwashing Brigade, and other institutional efforts to illuminate perceived eco- marketing misdeeds.

Sins of commission

Most of all, though, there were the “Six Sins of Greenwashing.” This 2007 study, by the Canadian firm TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, sent research teams into six category- leading big-box stores with orders “to record every product-based environmental claim they observed.” TerraChoice instructed the teams that, for each environmental claim, they should “identify the product, the nature of the claim, any supporting information, and any references offered for further information.”

The products studied included a wide range of offerings, from air fresheners to appliances, televisions to toothpaste. In total, the team identified 1,018 products making 1,753 claims. For each, TerraChoice sought to answer a basic question: What proof is there that a product actually meets this claim?

What the company found was that most of the products didn’t have a good answer. In fact, all but one made claims that “are either demonstrably false or that risk misleading intended audiences,” in the words of TerraChoice vice president Scot Case, who headed the project. Case and his team identified six “sins” of the offending products:

  • Sin of the hidden tradeoff — claims that suggest that a product is green based on a single environmental attribute (the recycled con- tent of paper, for example) or an unreasonably narrow set of attributes without attention to other important, or perhaps more important, environmental issues (such as the energy, climate, water, or forestry impacts of paper). Such claims aren’t usually false but paint a misleading picture of the product than a more complete environmental analysis would support. This was the most frequently committed “sin,” made by 57 percent of all environmental claims examined.
  • Sin of no proof (26 percent of all claims examined) — any claim that couldn’t be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification. TerraChoice determined there to be “no proof” if supporting evidence was not accessible at either the point of purchase or at the product Web site.
  • Sin of vagueness (11 percent of all claims examined) — any claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the intended consumer, such as “chemical free” or “all natural.”
  • Sin of irrelevance (4 percent of all claims examined) — claims that may be truthful but are unimportant and unhelpful for consumers, such as chlorofluorocarbon (CFC)–free products because ozone- depleting CFCs have been outlawed since the late 1970s.
  • Sin of lesser of two evils (1 percent of all claims examined) — environmental claims that may be true but that risk distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole, such as organic tobacco or green insecticides.
  • Sin of fibbing (less than 1 percent of all claims examined) — claims that are simply false, typically by misusing or misrepresenting certification by an independent authority when no such certification had been made.

I’m not sure that all these “sins” qualify as “greenwashing,” which I see as an intentional effort to misrepresent a product, service, or company as being environmentally responsible or improved. True, some of the claims that TerraChoice examined represent outright fabrications, but much of this seems less sin than sloppiness — marketers’ efforts to place a green sheen on a product, perhaps rightfully so, but without offering some basic proof points. Either way, it’s a poor showing for green marketers.

The TerraChoice study got the attention of, among others, McDonald’s Bob Langert, who was moved to pen, in his corporate blog, an alternative view. “I agree there are dangers associated with environ- mental marketing,” he wrote, “but I actually think many companies are reluctant to talk about their environmental efforts because they are concerned they will be met only with criticism. After all, true progress is so hard to define, and achieving perfection on the environmental front is impossible because there will always be ways to improve.”

But not talking about environmental efforts — which Langert dubbed “greenmuting” — may be a sin as well, he said. Mirroring TerraChoice, he offered six (quoted here in Langer’s voice):

  • Waiting for 100 percent understanding of the science behind the issues before taking action and making a claim. The reality: If you do, you’ll wait forever. Don’t get me wrong. Research is essential. But you can’t let the “analysis cause paralysis” and prevent you from getting the public informed and involved.
  • Being cautious on environmental claims because nongovernment organizations (NGOs) will probably just rip into your organization. The reality: Solid NGO partnerships are essential, but if you think you can please all stakeholders, you’re brainwashing yourself.
  • Not too many people choose products or services based on their environmental footprint. The reality: Conscious consumerism is on the rise, and I’m banking on consumers using their purchasing power to make a statement more and more in the years to come.
  • Green consumers are a small niche. The reality: Green is getting more mainstream than ever. There is enormous opportunity here to build the strength of a business, especially in terms of trust, brand, and reputation.
  • Communicating more on the environment will build pressure to take actions that are not practical or advantageous to the bottom line. The reality: Expectations are rising. Period. Why not get out ahead of the curve and develop the best solutions for your business?
  • When “greenwashing” is discussed, stay low and away from the conversation. The reality: Follow the advice on the “six sins” list. Let’s get greener and talk about it in the right way.

“We need more public discourse on all things green,” Langert concluded. “Greenmuting will only prevent the sea change in consumer awareness that is building toward real progress on the environment.” He’s right. Activists need not let down their guard, but they do need to lighten up. It’s not a binary world where everything is or isn’t green. A lot of this is relative: A green product can be one that’s improved, although far from perfect.

Or can it? As Langert says, we need less name calling and more actual conversation about what and how much it takes to be green.


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