BY BARBI WALKER
If the world seems awash in “green” to you, it isn’t your imagination. Green is the trademark color used to evoke feelings of environmentally friendly products and services. That’s a good thing, right? Yes and no. If a company’s claims are accurate—yes. If claims are false, exaggerated or misleading, then it’s considered “greenwashing,” which isn’t good for business, the consumer, or the environment.
The term “greenwashing” was originally coined in a 1986 essay by New York environmentalist Jay Westervelt. He thought the hotel industry’s campaign to “save the environment” by reusing towels to reduce water waste was dishonest. Westervelt said in his essay, campaign was about saving money for the hotels, not the environment, because less washing meant less cost.
However, today the environment is big business, and like other industries such as health care, education, tax accounting, and consumer products, the environmental industry is a business sector. If you are starting a green business or transitioning an existing business, success depends on knowing how to effectively and accurately communicate your company’s eco friendliness, and avoid greenwashing.
For businesses, going green earns more green
Finding a solution for environmental problems isn’t going to happen without innovations and profit motives from the private sector, say many economists. The environmental industry has grown at a quick pace and is recession-resistant so far—for a green business, this is good.
According to the Organic Trade Association’s (OTA) 2011 Organic Industry Survey, organic food and beverages in the U.S. have seen an increase in sales from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010. It further states that organic food and beverage sales represented approximately 4 percent of overall food and beverage sales in 2010. Leading were organic fruits and vegetables, now representing over 11 percent of all U.S. fruit and vegetable sales. The Organic Monitor estimates sales for the organic global market went up $4.5 billion in 2009, reaching $54.9 billion. The demand for sustainable products and services by consumers remains high, and the OTA predicts the trend will continue.
Sustainability – it’s a team effort
Both businesses and consumers are responsible for protecting the planet’s resources, across the globe.
Businesses consume mass amounts of natural resources such as water, electricity, and paper goods. Consumers need to educate themselves about environmentally sustainable products and practices; then purchase from those companies that commit to conserving resources, reducing emissions, and lowering their carbon footprint.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established “Green Guides” for companies to follow when making environmental claims. Following is a summarization of the guide’s comprehensive list: The environmental message must be clear, prominent and the language used must be relevant to the claim. Also the environmental characteristics should clearly refer to the product, packaging, or the service.
For new, or even current, green businesses, there are third-party sources that can help educate, train, and certify companies on how to integrate sustainability into their marketing strategy. Two reliable resources include the Ecolabel Index and Greenwashing Index.
Ecolabel Index helps organizations with strategic planning on sustainability and profitability by utilizing training programs, research, and expert analyses and guidelines that were created through a voluntary standards system. The four main areas of advisory services include:
1. Custom research and analysis: Client-driven research to support critical decision-making, including in-depth analysis of ecolabel markets, criteria, brand strategy and credibility.
2. Training: Online or in-person overview of the ecolabel universe, including an introduction to the ecolabel and green claims market and regulation, the basics of green purchasing, what to look for when using ecolabels, an overview of Ecolabel Index.
3. Presentations: Energize your green conference with real data and trend analysis from our experience running the world’s only global ecolabel database and extensive experience in presenting sustainability at conferences, in meetings, and in the boardroom.
4. Integration, tools and technology: In-depth analysis of how and where ecolabels fit with other information, sustainability tools, including product design tools, life cycle assessments, footprint assessments, environmental performance declarations, environmental management systems, CSR reporting, carbon registries and tracking systems, and new traceability technologies.
Ecolabel works with non-governmental agencies, international companies, and organizations as well as sustainability think-tanks throughout the world. For more information, go to www.ecolabelindex.com.
The Greenwashing Index is a collaboration between EnviroMedia Social Marketing and University of Oregon. The website has consumers and businesses “talking” about what constitutes factual environmental claims and what constitutes greenwashing. It’s an interactive site that allows visitors to upload ads and rate companies on how honest or deceptive they are with regards to green marketing. Greenwashingindex.com provide three tips to help consumers figure out if they are being greenwashed by a company:
1. Look at the company as a whole when you see a green ad. Is the information about their sustainable business practices easy to find on their website? How comprehensive is their claim to sustainability? Is the information believable? If not, then be wary.
2. Google the company name plus “environment” to see what the search engines find. If the company has any complaints against its environmental claims, something should pop up.
3. If it doesn’t strike you as being legit, don’t buy into it. If the green marketing claims feel “slick” and “hyped,” they very well might be. If you feel you are being sold a “false bag of goods,” listen to your gut. Learning how to decipher a green ad scam makes you that much more savvy of a shopper.
Going for green without going broke
If you are considering starting a green business, the Small Business Association (SBA) lists 10 basic guidelines:
1. Comply with environmental regulations
2. Develop an environmental management plan
3. Build green, remodel green
4. Buy green products
5. Adopt energy-efficient practices
6. Reduce, reuse, recycle wastes
7. Conserve water
8. Prevent pollution
9. Create a green marketing strategy
10. Join industry partnerships and steward programs
In the end, customers will find out the truth about products and services—and if customers feel deceived, they will not only stop buying from a company, they will spread the word through social media, and that could kill the business. For those in the green biz, stay green, stay sustainable, stay honest, and learn as much as you can about keeping your business and the environment healthy.
Barbi Walker is a freelance writer and an award-winning journalist. Barbi lives in Phoenix with her husband and young son.