August 8, 2013
Greenwash is one of those terms that has gone from needing an explanation to being in common usage in the space of a few years. The reason for that is quite simply that it is the perfect description of a particular form of marketing bullshit that we all recognise. However, while a degree of scepticism about what you hear from marketers is always healthy, but I fear the point has been reached where some people find it easy to dismiss real environmental claims as greenwash. The war against cynicism can partly be helped if more manufacturers and suppliers could get better at demonstrating the validity of their claims.
Steps are already being taken to deal with those suppliers who set out deliberately to mislead buyers. In the UK, the Advertising Standards Authority is fighting an ongoing battle against misleading green claims. The complaints it investigates appear to fall largely into two camps.
The first is typified by the claim that a product is ‘environmentally friendly’ when either it simply isn’t or what is really meant by the claim is that it is ‘less damaging to the environment than might otherwise be the case’, which is more accurate if less snappy. Many other countries are also taking steps to clarify these sorts of claims. In Norway, manufacturers must be careful about how they use terms such as ‘environmentally friendly,’ ‘natural’ and ‘green’. Australia has clamped down on terminology and also the use of green symbols such as trees, dolphins and pandas. Canada ensures that all green claims can be backed up by readily available data.
The second issue is more complex because it relates to claims about carbon and is associated more directly with the issue of climate change. It’s a subject beyond the scope of this comment, but carbon offsetting, tree planting and carbon trading, the growth of firms claiming not just carbon neutrality but carbon positivity and so on can be unfairly seen as a marketing ploy, a salve for the conscience rather than the salvation of the environment.
These issues are common to both consumer and commercial markets, but the latter has some complexities of its own which can add to the levels of scepticism. For a start, it can be very difficult to keep track of the daily raft of research, initiatives, opinion and new legislation, each of which generates its own backlash with people saying that it all goes too far, not far enough or is well intentioned but pointless.
Of course, some suppliers can hamper their own efforts by making claims that are mundane. Anybody who has ever worked on developing a brief and seeing the response to it will be aware of this problem of ‘green noise’, a background hum of claims that is so universal it can disappear. When every manufacturer makes the same claims about their environmental policies, accreditations and use of materials, those credentials become a way of weeding out poorly performing firms rather than positive selection criteria.
It’s also worth looking beyond headline claims about products at the selection process. Take the common enough claim that some product is 95 (or whatever) per cent recyclable. That may be true, but it may not address life cycle issues and the practical problems of how the various recyclable materials – metal, wood, plastic, foam, fabric – can be disassembled, replaced and recycled. A well-developed brief will allow for this extra level of complexity to let suppliers explain more sophisticated aspects of their products.
While legislators and manufacturers can play their own role, there is also an onus on the rest of us not to get drawn into the cynicism. Very few suppliers set out to deliberately mislead their customers and the majority have taken significant and genuine steps to deal with their environmental impact. They do this for their own ethical reasons and because they understand that they need sophisticated and genuine products to respond to the demands of their customers. We’re all in this together.
by Mark Eltringham