With Earth Day – and the annual froth of environmental claims and events from marketers – behind us, it is vital to reflect on the environment as a marketing tool and ensure that your brand and corporate reputation are not blackened when you go green
The title of this month’s column comes not from the name of a transformative New Order song, but from an observation made by a guest at an Earth Week event hosted by my law firm.
Our event featured a panel discussion with senior leaders from a diverse group of industries. Despite the stark differences between what goods or services they produce, all of the speakers highlighted innovations in their fields that reduce the environmental impact of their activities.
From mining to energy and from construction to consumer products, it was clear that more has been done to go green than many realize.
What was also clear is that most companies are proud of these achievements and want to advertise the greening of their business, though many may be gun-shy in the face of meticulous consumer groups on the lookout for greenwashing. But a few notes of caution are required to help ensure that your brand and corporate reputation are not blackened when you go green into the market. Environmentalism and marketing should not be kept separate. After all, Earth Day itself is a marketing campaign.
It was developed by one of the original Mad Men, Julian Koenig. First held on April 22, 1970, Earth Day was the brainchild of United States Senator Gaylord Nelson.
The Senator’s passion for the environment and desire to educate the country on environmental stewardship led him to propose a national “Environmental Teach-In.” Nelson gathered a committee to refine the concept and was fortunate to tap the talents of the legendary Koenig.
Koenig was one of Madison Avenue’s top talents and had received wide acclaim a decade earlier for his iconic “Think Small” campaign for Volkswagen. Koenig persuaded the Senator to brand April 22 as Earth Day. As the story goes, the idea came to Koenig because April 22 was also his birthday and he liked the resonance between Earth Day and Birthday.
In the decades since then, consumers have been increasingly bombarded by green marketing. As environmentalism and sustainable practices became mainstream, demand for green products rose exponentially.
TerraChoice, a sustainability and marketing consultancy, monitors thousands of products marketing themselves with green claims. In a 2010 study of 4,774 such products, TerraChoice determined that a staggering 95% of them lacked the clarity they believe is needed for consumers to make informed choices regarding environmental benefit.
This leads to another term that entered the advertising lexicon because of the environment: greenwashing—the practice of a company or brand exaggerating the environmental benefit of a product or how it’s manufactured. In many instances, more money is spent advertising a green benefit than is spent by the company to reduce its footprint.
The rise of greenwashing has led regulators in Canada and many other countries to issue or update guidelines on environmental claims and to bring enforcement proceedings against the worst offenders. In the U.S., a number of companies even face consumer class action lawsuits stemming from green advertising claims.
To maintain a green brand without getting a black eye from regulators, the public or the courts, a brand should carefully review all elements of a green marketing campaign. It is critical to have scientific and documentary support for environmental benefit claims. Whether it is the ingredients or parts used in a product or the reduction of greenhouse gases caused by its production, any environmental benefit needs to be clearly communicated and supported by evidence. So proceed carefully with the use of green symbols or logos—adding a leaf or other green element to your logo or packaging is an invitation to consumers to buy a green product. You will need to support that impression in the same way as when you make explicit green claims. Finally, a big warning about what is known as the “Green Power Parity” claim. If you tell the consumer they can select your more-green product over the competition without sacrificing performance, you’d better have bullet-proof evidence to back it up. After all, this is what most industries are striving for; allowing for a green choice without the compromise on benefit.
Erin O’Toole’s Rules of Engagement column appears semi-regularly in Marketing magazine. To subscribe, click here.
Erin O’Toole (@MarketingROE) is a lawyer with the national firm of Heenan Blaikie LLP. This column is not legal advice nor a substitute for legal counsel.