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Consumers Understand Greenwash, So Why Can’t The Communications Industry?

As company marketing and advertising departments are waking up to the huge commercial opportunities within the emerging ‘green’ market, it is no surprise that consumers have started to articulate that they feel ‘greenwashed.’

Today, communications is about big ideas, creativity and implicitly being generous with the truth. But this sort of marketing is getting stale and as consumers, we’re suffering from communication fatigue. Moreover, this is damaging brands, losing them both trust and loyalty. Could this be why 57% of us are more likely to believe recommendations from family or friends than advertisers in choosing products and services? This ‘fast forwarding’ of advertising by consumers represents a real challenge to the communications industry.

The industry has lost sight of what communications should be about; delivering a message in a real, honest, transparent way. It is not difficult to deliver green claims in a way that is truthful, relevant and clear.

But clearly, for some brands, it is easier to attempt to change consumers’ opinions though creative advertising campaigns than to tackle the real issues at the heart of what they do.

Shell: Don’t throw anything away, there is no away.

An oil refinery emitting flowers? That’s pretty creative advertising. But with an element of truth; Shell claimed that it used waste carbon dioxide to grow flowers and waste sulphur to make concrete. The problem is one of scale; while Shell may indeed use some of their waste carbon dioxide to grow flowers, this represents only a small proportion of their waste carbon dioxide. What’s more, Shell has failed to stop gas flaring in the Niger Delta, despite making a commitment to end the practice.

Renault: Economical, Ecological

The advert, for Renault Twingo, set the car against a green background and depicted leaves emerging from its exhaust. The car is neither economical nor efficient; it is categorized as band C in the vehicle excise duty rankings for efficiency and did not feature in the Department for Tranport’s list of top 10 low carbon dioxide cars. The ASA have instructed Renault not run the ad again.

Though somewhat imaginative in the replacement of greenhouse gases with flowers and leaves, this is well-established greenwash territory and hardly creative advertising. Besides, there are far more exciting ways to engage consumers with sustainability.

Patagonia: The Footprint Chronicles

Admitting the less attractive aspects of their supply chain helps Patagonia reinforce their overall objectives. Patagonia’s most remarkable initiative, in terms of its commitment to sustainability is The Footprint Chronicles. An on-line exploration of the backstories of ten representative Patagonia products, The Footprint Chronicles is filled with compelling graphics, thoughtful explanations, even a blog, which appears to be open and transparent in its discussion. And not a leaf or a flower in sight.

In an age when consumers are using the Internet to actively seek the truth about brands; what brands do is so much more important than what they say. But we seem to have forgotten that actions speak louder than words.

Diana Verde Nieto is Founder and CEO of Clownfish www.clownfish.co.uk a communications and brand agency dedicated to making sustainability tangible for business.

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6 thoughts on “Consumers Understand Greenwash, So Why Can’t The Communications Industry?

  1. I’m surprised to see Patagonia’s campaign on this list. There is nothing “greenwash” about this company. In fact its founder is considered to be one of the greenest and most pioneering corporate leaders by almost everyone in the environmental community.

    Diana Verde Nieto apparently doesn’t understand the differnce between using slick advertising to “greenwash” ala Shell, and a truly green company using good marketing to spread its message. “Greenwash” is about deception, people. Not about an innovative green company using good marketing tactics.

    We all need to be careful about grouping all of the corporate world’s green initiatives into the “greenwash” category. Not all marketing related to the environment belongs there.

  2. I think Rita McConnell misunderstands the point that Diana Verde Nieto is making. It is clear that she is highlighting the difference between using slick advertising to greenwash and a truly green company like Patagonia using good marketing, not confusing the two.

  3. Not only be authentic where things come from, but also go to… recently an Eco Mom told me she wants to see a video of how/where her recycled e-waste goes. She doesn’t trust that it will not in up in some other mother’s backyard in a third world country.

    Patagonia is an excellent example of walking the walk. I just bought a reclaimed threads hoodie. I liked its Life Cycle story, but I bought it for its wearability. I’m so tired of putting good money into clothes that don’t last.

  4. for me it is clear why the communications industry (i.e. PR/ advertising firms don’t). they have not been paid to get it, and the more they get it, the less people will consume.

    I am currently working on a major project for a leading PR firm, and it is the must frustrating experience I have ever had. “it is a show” is something I have heard on multiple occasions as they speak about their own program, and I shutter to think that they actually advise others.

    It is clear that while CSR is a term created by PR firms to sell more business, they are the ones who are themost conflicted commercially by true consumer awareness and sustainability

  5. I agree that Diana is using Patagonia as a good example and she could have made that a little clearer. Green washing, even the proliferation of green certifications, as I blogged about last week, is definitely a problem. The FTC is in the process of updating its green marketing guidelines and hopefully this will help ease the problem.

  6. Hayden is correct — I DID misunderstand this on the first read. But that fact just furthers the point I made. If we’re communicating about things that are complex, we need to be clearer in the way we do it. When we aren’t we get these greenwash arguements that hinder the efforts of companies trying to make real change. A great example is Wal-Mart — people keep insisting they are greenwashing, but in many areas they are making true change. Much of the public refuses to accept that beacuse its still stuck in the old perceptual model of what Wal-Mart is. Diana — be clearer next time — and EL, write headlines that are clearer. I saw it on the second read, but the story really looks like its hitting Patagonia.

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