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  • Julie Moline, Avenue 3

Six Tips to Avoid the Greenwashing Smear


We all know that making overstated, irrelevant or misleading claims is a cardinal sin in advertising. So is trying to be cool and current when your product is anything but. There’s even a specific term for making bogus claims about your company’s environmental efforts—bragging about a laughably small amount of recycled material in manufacturing, or announcing your product is biodegradable when it isn’t, or, as one paper manufacturer notoriously claimed, it was protecting bears and salmon—never mind that it was actually destroying their habitat with savage deforestation. Exaggerating, obfuscating or fibbing like this for an environmentalist halo is called greenwashing, a delightful variation of the word hogwash.

Consumer derision over greenwashing has been so strong and in some cases so crippling that many companies are fearful about making any kind of environmental claim—even if their credibility is unassailable—for fear of some sort of viral backlash.

And that’s a shame, because consumers go out of their way to support the companies whose values align with theirs. It’s smart to be hyperaware of potential negativity, but it also shouldn’t prevent you from promoting your company’s environmentally responsible practices.

So what do you need to do to avoid triggering any anti-greenwashing sentiment?

First, expect intense scrutiny over any claim you make on any platform. Consumers, especially millennials, expect transparency and accountability, says Jacquie Ottman, a consultant who has written five award-winning books on green marketing and eco-innovation. “Consumers are evaluating every single lifecycle impact of what they buy—what raw materials are used and how they’re sourced, manufacturing processes, labor practices, product design and packaging design, and distribution and disposal methods. It’s as if sustainability is the new item on the shopping list, along with ‘is this a brand name that I recognize,’ is it affordable, and is it advertised ethically.” This attention extends beyond consumers to employees, new recruits and, increasingly, investors, she adds. Bottom line: if you’re doing something right, all of these stakeholders will want to know about it.

But as you tell your story, Ottman suggests, keep it clear and keep it real. Here are her pointers:

  1. Don’t say anything that you can’t back up. In other words, don’t make a claim that a third party cannot verify.

  2. Make sure that any green claim you make is consistent with guidelines published by the Federal Trade Commission’s “Green Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims.” The guide was last updated in 2012, but it’s still essential information.

  3. Promote the responsible consumption of your product. If you make all-natural toothpaste, tell consumers it’s a good idea to turn the tap off when you brush your teeth. If you’re an organic dairy, make it easy to recycle the packaging. If you’re a food producer, tell your customer how to cut down on food waste and direct them to newsletters (yours or others’) that provide tips on reducing waste of all kinds.

  4. Position your initiatives as a step in the journey toward sustainability, rather than trumpet some sort of accomplishment that falls short of a feat. If you use 10% recycled material in your product or packaging, say so—and also acknowledge that there’s a long way to go and that a process is in place to continue improving.

  5. Align your brand with an environmental and/or social cause or initiative. “The world responds when your company comes across as ethical,” Ottman says. Cause-related marketing demonstrates your commitment of time and resources (financial and human) to something your company believes in. Consumers appreciate authenticity, and this is a way to reinforce it.

  6. Whenever possible, get a third-party endorsement—but make sure that the endorser is both familiar and credible to consumers.

You may also want to consider soliciting environmental product declarations, or EPDs. These provide details of a product’s lifecycle impacts, and are verified by a reputable third party.

Useful links:

Federal Trade Commission Green Guides: www.ftc.gov/news-events/media-resources/truth-advertising/green-guides

Green Seal provides science-based environmental certification standards: http://www.greenseal.org