Greenwash Backlash

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greenwash_smallADOTAS – With the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day close in the rearview mirror, we all heard lots of companies pitching themselves as “green.” And just in time, Ogilvy & Mather have published a new guide to help with managing your brand: “From Greenwash to Great: A Practical Guide to Great Green Marketing (without the Greenwash).”

According to Ogilvy’s Scott McDougall, Greenwash is “an extremely serious matter… eroding consumer trust… If you make a public environmental claim, you must provide public proof to substantiate the claim.”

So I wondered what companies that fall in the “Greenwash” rather than the “Great” category were claiming. According to Google Trends, carbon offsetting is out.

I got the same answer when I asked a few leading bloggers in the field what was hot and what was not. People don’t want “pretty good” solutions like carbon offsetting, like they don’t want “pretty good” science based on magazine articles or “pretty good” products that cost more but aren’t that much better than their non-eco counterparts.

With the failure of Copenhagen’s COP15 and the worldwide recession, there has been a general slowing of the green movement in getting things done. What there has not been is a slowing in the use of green terms and approaches in marketing.

What I’ve seen the most of is companies using eco-claims to make their products stand out in a market where consumers are trying to stretch their dollar. So while carbon offsetting is out, eco-efficient terms are definitely “in” when you get to the shelves in the store.

GreenBiz.com found the same thing in February:

One study found that while most consumers view ‘energy efficiency,’ ‘smart energy’ and ‘energy conservation’ as positive concepts, few fully understand what those and other energy-related terms actually mean. Another survey found more Americans buying energy-efficient light bulbs, but the majority remain in the dark about the federally mandated phaseout of incandescent bulbs that starts in two years.”

So while Ogilvy’s report may prove that our products are being “greenwashed,” it may be working, and their producers may be awash in green.

But I do believe that Scott McDougall’s comments about greenwashing eroding consumer trust are accurate. At this point, people want to do the right thing, and multiple surveys have shown that consumers are willing to pay for reliable, quality products that are truly “green.”

So what’s hot? Truth. Reliability. Verifiable claims that mean something.

And what’s not? Half-truths. Greenwashing. Marketing claims that mean nothing.

Welcome to the intelligent, eco-conscious consumer of 2010.

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