In today’s environmentally-conscious world, communicating a corporate message of sustainability can be incredibly beneficial to a brand. While a company should communicate its notable progress toward sustainability, it should be mindful of “greenwashing.” In our last couple posts, we have taken a look at specific instances of greenwashing here and here. Today we hope to give more examples and the define of greenwash.
Greenwash, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is “disinformation disseminated by an organization, etc., so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.” The term greenwashing was coined by environmentalists to describe the deceitful efforts companies had undertaken to portray a good environmental image. Companies used to (and often still do) run ads after incidents like oil spills, plant explosions, or chemical dumping to appear environmentally conscious and reduce brand damage. The term originally was specific to these advertising efforts, but as companies have diversified efforts to appear environmentally virtuous, the definition of greenwashing has expanded. Now, everything from corporate reporting, distribution of educational information, and donations to non-profits or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) could be greenwashing. Nonetheless, the intent of greenwashing tactics for any of these activities is the same: to appear ecologically friendly.
Unfortunately, greenwash is in many ways a subjective term. People often cannot describe what a commercial containing greenwash looks like, but most know it when they see it. Websites like the Greenwashing Index, jointly promoted by EnviroMedia Social Marketing and The University of Oregon, allow users to upload, rate, and discuss the level of greenwash in each particular ad. Users can rate ads from one to five; one meaning they believe the ad is authentic, and five to denote that it’s “bogus.” Some examples users uploaded to the site include:
- Ortho ecosense Brand Outdoor Insect Killer–It says right on the bottle “not intended to imply environmental safety…” but the green spray nozzle, ecosense brand name, and green lettering on a nice light blue background sure do imply “green.”
- A print ad by Royal Dutch Shell showing flowers emanating from smoke stacks. This ad received an average rating of 4.6 from Greenwashing Index users. User ddickison of Charlston, South Carolina said, “Can’t read the fine print, but it’s difficult to imagine how any text can explain away the improbability of smokestacks emitting flowers.”
- A commercial for a Toyota Prius, which certainly evokes “feel good” emotions, is misleading in saying that the Prius is harmony between man, nature, and machine. Also misleading are the endless fields of flowers blooming and grass growing as the Prius drives by, as if to say that the car makes nature happy. See for yourself:
Regardless of how guilty these companies are of greenwashing, the ads were selected by consumers as examples of greenwash. And in the end what really matters is whether or not the customer believes the company is being genuine. If an oil company spends a ridiculously small amount of money on developing renewable energy, but spends all its advertising budget on patting itself on the back, consumers are going to recognize that and add it to sites like the greenwashing index. A car company who puts a tremendous amount of money advertising its hybrid, but produces more pickup trucks in a month then hybrids in a year may not actually be the “greenest” car company on the planet. True green comes from actually being green, not just advertising green.
Most companies are getting “slightly less damaging to the environment” and “eco-friendly,” “green,” or “sustainable” confused. Many consumers are watching companies greenwash, and are beginning to respond negatively. Greenwashing can seriously damage a brand, and cause consumers to lose what little trust they have of companies. However, those who communicate a message of sustainability in a straightforward and effective manner are being rewarded. We’ll bring you more on the effects of greenwashing and why it’s so important next week. In the meantime, take a look at ads in your industry, and let us know if you spot vague or misleading claims.