The Reasons Why Greenwashing is a Sure Fire Marketing Sin

There is a little bit of gray area when it comes to greenwashing. If you aren’t familiar with this term, greenwashing refers to the behaviors of companies who try to present themselves as ecologically conscious and environmentally responsible but without doing any good in the long run.

Don’t be that company. You know the one. They say they are sending coupons by email now instead of paper because they want to “Love the Trees of the Earth,” but it is just about lowering their expenses. If customers still must print the coupons and bring them in, this is really offloading printing costs with a greater interest in a different kind of green.

Reduction of paper use can be both a cost reduction and an environmental benefit, unless the resulting changes will increase overall energy consumption or expand your company’s carbon footprint so much that the paper savings are meaningless.

Make sure your message is rooted in a sincere effort to be socially responsible. Clearly define the eco-friendly qualities of your product or service and publish supporting data in your marketing collateral and on your website. Include a reminder for the customer to recycle your printed materials.

Marketing is about presenting brands in a way that makes them relevant to the lives of their customers. Green activities are relevant only when they highlight the brand’s core values, not when they are tacked on to misrepresent the brand or distract the customer.

Here is a quick introduction to a few of the Cardinal Sins of Greenwashing defined by TerraChoice, a subsidiary of Underwriters Laboratories:
1. The Sin of Misdirection
Marketing copy that crows about paper from a sustainably-harvested forest sets off red lights for customers. What about all the environmental damage that comes from the paper-making factory, such as chemical pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and unbalanced energy consumption? Being green involves a more holistic approach to long-term ecological impacts.

2. The Sin of Omitting Evidence
If claims aren’t based on verifiable facts or aren’t specific enough, it is impossible to prove or disprove them. In scientific terms, these statements are meaningless. Descriptive terms like “energy efficient” and “made with x percent post-consumer recycled content” only make your company sound irresponsible unless you can point to data that backs up the claim.

3. The Sin of Being Too Vague
The biggest offender by far are the labels “all natural,” “eco-friendly” and “environmentally safe.” There are a great many substances that are all natural, such as arsenic, botulism, amoebas, mold, mercury, uranium, insects and formaldehyde. All of them are also deadly and destructive. If your marketing is using vague phrases like these, customers can only conclude that you are trying to mislead or confuse them.

4. The Sin of Not Telling the Truth
Fortunately, this sin has been dropping rapidly, mostly due to curious consumers and their ability to check out nearly everything with a handy search engine.

Some of these sins are certainly worse than others. The number one marketing lesson that all these companies should have learned is simple: Be honest. Don’t try to fool the public, because once your claims are out there in black and white, people are going to discover the truth.

Trust is not a renewable resource. The businesses that can weather economic downturns and technological upheavals are those that can build and sustain the trust of their customers. If you feel like your company could use a little greening, that is a smart and responsible decision. Don’t ruin it by painting your company with a greenwashing marketing brush.

It is important to engage your employees, shareholders, suppliers, customers and community in your environmental efforts. These groups influence marketing and buying decisions, so the opportunity for gaining competitive advantage is greatest when you align your corporate strategy with stakeholder values. Consider producing an annual sustainability report as a tangible reminder of your long-term commitment to environmental stewardship.

At the end of the day, it is your actions, not your marketing claims, that determine whether your company is green. By adapting a proactive approach to sustainability, you will effectively balance your financial objectives with social and environmental considerations, leading to higher sales, increased market share, happier employees and a better future for all.

By Victor Clarke