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July 06, 2008



You're right in that it's no different from marketers spinning other features and benefits—Twice the cleaning power! The difference is that consumers are still trying to learn what sustainability means and that much of their information comes from marketing content. So greenwashing confuses consumers as they try to get up to speed on what they should do to help save the planet.

Of course, sometimes greenwashing is just a function of lazy marketing. Check out this packaging from North Face (see photo links below). Two goofball messages:

1. We're green, that's why we have a "eco-friendly hang tag program." Never mind that we're adding an extra page into the hang tags to tell you about it or that a hang tag is about .05% of the matter that makes up the product we're manufacturing.

2. We put every hang tag in a plastic bag. Ooops.

North Face Photo 1

North Face Photo 2

Georjean Adams

As usual, you hit the mark, Joel: "random acts of green" does indeed describe what most companies are doing. I'm excited to see that so many are trying - even if in baby steps - because I think it will be hard for them to stop going. Yes, corporate-wide vision and strategic processes need to exist to incorporate sustainable thinking into every decision at every level. But it's going to take some time to change how businesses evaluate and solve problems - a lot of new paradigms to learn and silos to knock down. One of the tried and true methods (which we may never change) is advertising puffery - "use product X and you be sexier, skinnier, wealthier, happier, etc." Now it's cool to be green - of course the marketers are jumping on it! I don't think they are intentionally lying, just exaggerating like they always do. Unfortunately, they and their bosses don't get it: "Green" is a religion for many activists and there's no tolerance for blasphemy.

I'm an optimist. We will figure out ways to measure and communicate being "greener" and better rules (like the FTC is working on) will come into play to protect the consumer from outright lies. For now we are all still learning what "green" means. I hope we don't stop because of fear of being recycled into organic fertilizer by the zealots.

Jacob Malthouse

We agree it's all good and that greenwashing is probably not that hard to handle. We get a lot of comments around green being to difficult but our research has shown it's actually pretty straight-forward to identify the decent eco-labels and claims and then make choices based on them.

It's a bit harder where there's no standard in place, but people are getting better at using common baselines around energy use, packaging, life cycle analysis.

Carolyn Yang, VP Marketing, Timberland

Thank you Joel, for posing a very interesting question -- one I give thought to often: Should our company be talking to consumers about how green we are? Do they care? Will they believe us or, by virtue of being a business and therefore (assumed-to-be) an environmental despoiler, will our claims be viewed as disingenuous? I suspect the fear of being labeled a greenwasher is exactly what holds well-intended companies back from being more transparent with consumers, which is the real tragedy – only by taking that risk and communicating openly and honestly about our business practices (the good AND the bad) are we going to succeed in a) gaining consumer trust and b) disproving the all-too prevalent belief that no for-profit business is truly interested in helping to save the environment. It’s a tough line to take and its easier to err on the side of caution, but the outcome of increased transparency is better educated, empowered consumers who can make better informed decisions -- a benefit that, in my opinion, far outweighs any “greenwashing” risks.

Paul Doran

For every product or service purchase which is made as a result of greenwashing, an opportunity is wasted. Those truly green products and services are drowned out by companies who make more noise and have more marketing dollars to throw at the green market segment.

We will not make real progress towards a more sustainable way of doing business if we dont reward the innovators who are genuinely doing something different, at the expense of those who are merely taking 'baby steps' - in order to provide their PR departments with a few good stories to help demonstrate their green credentials.

Mike Lawrrence

Appreciate the "out of the box" argument, Joel. But it's not "all good", of course. Paul Doran and Georjean Adams are right- if the space gets too noisy with puffery, people will tune out. I believe that marketing communications probably has the best chance of any tool to educate and change behavior on global warming- because there's lots of $$$ for it and everyone hears it. Some research we did this past spring showed consumers ARE listening, and that they believe what they're hearing. If they discover they're being snookered, the power to influence will start to wane and be replaced with another wave of cynicism about corporatations. On the other hand, if companies and advertisers start to treat environmental marketing thoughtfully- with documunted claims, links to more info, pictures that make sense (please, no trees growing out of smokestacks!) and- dare we say it- a bit of humility/work in progress, they just might help change the world.

Maya Forstater

I am not sure that the definition of Greenwash has so much changed in the past decade or so, as split into two seperate (but related) discussions. Greenpeace's criteria for assessing greenwash (as part of its current campaign) are all about how a companies' marketing and PR can distract criticism away from the impacts of their core business. While the judgements being made in the 'Six Sins of Greenwashing', BSR's work on 'eco-claims' etc.. are more about product level truth in advertising. I think the second type of greenwash is on the rise, if only because green marketing has become so much more prevalent. But the first conversation is also still going strong.

The other conversation, that is only beginning to take place, is about whether green marketing (or indeed media, government and NGO campaigns)are encouraging consumers to undertake their own 'randomn acts of green'. i.e.: A few totemic actions which have a bigger environmental feel-good pay-off than impact pay-off. You could call this 'personal greenwashing': for example the recent attention on reusable shoppping bags seems to fall into this category. WWF's recent 'Strategies for Change' report asks whether even well meaning and rigourously assessed green claims are in danger of distracting consumers' attention from the major impacts of their lifestyle, and from political as well as personal action.

These three debates will run and run, although the truth-in-advertising one is going to be the easiest to legislate for.

Gary Emmons

I appreciate the discussion of this topic. We have recently had a number of conversations about this, especially since a comment we received accusing us of greenwashing. We had done an article on a product that the commenter felt was not environmentally friendly. This despite the attached LEED credits. Upon further review, she had a point. But, it was a bit obscure.

What we have discussed is the fact, to which you allude, that there are efforts at becoming increasingly green. It is a process. Do we immediately discredit any company whose products are not all entirely green? Or do we give them praise and support for their efforts?

Take this down to a personal level. We have a "green" related blog. Are we completely and entirely green? Is anyone? No, we are all (hopefully) making efforts to become moreso. We all have to live in the real world and operate within the existing infrastructure.

So, kudos to companies who are making the same effort in the course of doing business. To hold them to a different standard than that to which we hold ourselves is the real hypocracy.

One more thing: Mike Lawrence has a very good and very important point, in the context of sustaining this effort.


I think it's important for companies to be aware of the environment and make steps to align their businesses with practices that are the least damaging to it. However, there is the issue of misleading the public. Just because you take one step to save a rainforest but carry products that are harmful to the environment doesn't make you an environmentally friendly company. However, we don't want to discourage any positive step that any company is making. It's up to the consumer to research the companies and products they purchase.

bamboo clothing

David McReynolds

Hasbro's Mighty Muggs claim to be made from 100% recycled awesome. What is recycled awesome? I can only assume it isn't a real recycled material as I can find nothing about it on their website. This is very misleading if it is not a real recylcled material.

The slogan is right under the logo.


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