Last updated: Jul 2008
Can we kill greenwash before it kills us? By Dan Welch
Exxon Mobil have just launched a new TV ad campaign which includes images of wind turbines and implies the company is focused on clean energy technologies.1 The song accompanying nuclear giant EDF’s animated internet advert proclaims “I am green and it’ll do fne, it’s beautiful”.
We seem to be awash in greenwash. £17 million was spent on advertising containing the words “CO2”, “carbon”, “environmental,” “emissions,” and “recycle” from September 2006 to August 2007. That’s a 32 fold increase in “green” advertising since 2003. And yet a recent study by infuential sustainability communications agency Futerra found that none of the UK’s biggest advertising agencies have training or guidelines for their staff on what is a justifed green claim. And none of the main UK publications and broadcasters that sell advertising space, accounting for £6.77bn of advertising spending a year, have codes of conduct for green claims. Of the 39 media outlets Futerra spoke to only three of the ad sales teams had heard the term ‘greenwash’.2
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that the Advertising Standards Authority reports that complaints about environmental claims more than doubled in 2007.3
But why do we get so upset by greenwash when we are constantly bombarded by ads offering us plain old unsustainable products?
Market research suggests that the public is generally cynical about corporate environmental claims. Some surveys show that 9 out of 10 people in the UK and the US are sceptical about environmental claims from both companies and governments.4
A recent study by BT showed that only 3% of the public think businesses are honest about becoming more environmentally or socially responsible, while a third say businesses actively exaggerate what they are doing.5
While some might see this as healthy given the corporate record, the danger is a generalised cynicism about all things green in which genuine claims are rejected along with the bogus. As Futerra put it, “greenwash threatens the whole business rationale for becoming more environmental friendly” by eroding consumer confidence in green claims.
The Death of Greenwash
Thankfully, companies peddling green spin are under scrutiny as never before. Campaign groups are having increasing success at exposing greenwash. And advertising regulators worldwide are cracking down on bogus environmental claims. Chris Smith, chairman of the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has committed the body to a “more proactive” approach. The US, France and Australia have all recently tightened their codes. The Norwegian Consumer Ombudsman recently banned the use of “green,” “clean” or “environmentally friendly” in car adverts, stating: “Cars cannot do anything good for the environment except less damage than others”.6
With campaigners shooting down greenwash as fast as corporates can commission it, the advertising and marketing industry has taken serious note. Campaign victories over corporate spin make good press, and media coverage of greenwash increased seven fold between 2005 and 2007 in the UK.7
According to Chris Arnold, who writes on ethical marketing for BrandRepublic.com: “Marketing departments are coming under increasing pressure to not damage the company reputation with short term greenwash campaigns.” Industry journal Adweek recently cautioned corporations seeking to proft from green marketing to “realize they’re swimming against a turbid current of anti-corporate sentiment... greenwashing has become a household word.”8
Market researchers Nielsen Online recently concluded that greenwashing was a “failed corporate strategy” and urged brands to aim for transparency and consistency instead.9
As green marketing guru John Grant puts it: “You can’t put a lettuce in the window of a butcher’s shop and declare that you are now ‘turning vegetarian’.”
Campaigners 1, Greenwashers 0
In the UK the ASA can only rule on adverts in response to complaints, whether from individuals or campaign groups. Not only can adverts be banned, costing greenwashers hard cash, but its rulings help publicise messages that directly counter the greenwash agenda.
Here are two recent victories:
The ASA ruled that British Gas couldn’t call one of its tariffs, which ‘offsets’ emissions “Zero Carbon”, because gas “would always produce carbon emissions when used”.
A recent advert for the Lexus RX400h SUV ran with the byline “High performance. Low emissions. Zero Guilt.” According to the ASA, “’Zero Guilt’ implied the car was environmentally friendly, [and]...the headline claim was likely to mislead”.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defnes greenwash as:
‘Disinformation disseminated by an organisation to present an environmentally responsible public image.’
1 See also www.media.exxonmobil.com/media/microsite
2 ‘The Greenwash Guide’ Futerra Sustainability Communications, May 2008, p.23-24)
3 ‘Annual Report 2007’ Advertising Standards Authority
4 ‘What Assures Consumers on Climate Change?’ Accountability and Consumers International, June 2007, p.23
5 www.btplc.com/News/Articles /Showarticle.cfm?ArticleID=11efc6a1-1df0-4189-a0f7-392c478a12bf viewed 5/6/8
6 http://uk.reuters.com/article/environmentNews /idUKL0671323420070906?pageNumber =2&virtualBrandChannel=0&sp=true viewed 6/9/7
7 From an annual review of 30 national newspapers, quoted in Futerra op. cit
8 Adweek, May 12, 2008
9 ‘Sustainability through the Eyes and Megaphones of the Blogosphere’ Nielsen Online, March 2008