Or: How I stopped worrying about greenwashing and learned to love EPDs
You have a product and you want to tell the world how great it is. But what if you want to make claims that it’s better than the competition? How can you do so without being slammed for greenwashing? Even in these early days of green marketing, already more than one company has fallen into that trap, resulting in considerable backlash.
Consider Cotton USA, with their claim that industrial cotton production is sustainable – even though it is an intensely petroleum and chemically-driven monoculture. Chevron’s “Will You Join Us” campaign is considered to be another big violator – the tagline itself rings patently false to anyone semi-aware of any oil company’s carbon credentials. So, how can you launch a sustainability marketing campaign and avoid the pitfalls of a greenwashing backlash?
The risk may be less than you fear. As Joel Makower noted recently in his analysis of the state of green product marketing (published by TerraChoice), “… a lot of what’s called ‚Äògreenwash[ing]’ is in the eye of the beholder. What for some consumers might be a reasonable and meaningful marketing claim can be seen by others to be a travesty of justice. Sometimes the criticism is justified; often it’s nit-picking.” So, it seems that doing nothing gets you into trouble, yet doing something risks getting you criticized by the very same folks who were encouraging you to act in the first place.
Why not just choose a methodology and forget it, then? This approach has merit if your chosen methodology has already become the de-facto standard, but this is rare in the young field of green marketing. More likely, there are multiple competing standards, and it’s unclear which one will rise above the fray. Rewind to being beaten up by another reviewer for not using their standard, rinse and repeat a few times and you can see why business is leery of claiming any green improvements until they feel they are beyond reproach – maybe 50 years from now….
What to do? Enter the EPD. Is this just another acronym in search of a problem to solve? Yes and no. In this case, the methodology behind the acronym – the Environmental Product Declaration – was created by an international consortium to compare the relative environmental performance of products in the same market space. At its core, the EPD relies on a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) to make comparisons. As different product categories have inherently different environmental characteristics, the EPD adds an additional layer – called Product Category Rules (PCR) to ensure that you really can say that your product is better than your competitors’ – and have the science to back it up. Unlike other sustainability standards du jour, the EPD’s multilateral backing and scientific grounding make it robust enough to plug into any green marketing campaign and strong enough to stand up to challenges of greenwashing.
Although EPDs originated in Europe – and are significantly more common there at the moment – that is starting to change. Some leading US-based companies, such as InterfaceFLOR and Knoll, have started to adopt EPD certifications. Why? Not only because it allows them to compete effectively in European markets, but also because it gives them an advantage in making scientifically verified environmental claims for their products in the US market.
“We were eager to create and have verified an EPD to raise the bar, move our industry and provide the model and foundation for our competitors to follow. Ultimately this will allow our customers to make apples-to-apples comparisons of carpet products. Now our competitors need to get on board and do their own EPDs,” said David Hobbs, president of InterfaceFLOR, an industry leader in environmental sustainability.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. Because EPDs are standardized, verifiable, and reliable, InterfaceFLOR can ground their green marketing claims without fear of repercussions. Could such an approach work at your company? Are there other problems with the EPD that we didn’t address here? Sound off in the comments!
FairRidge Group is a team of management, strategy, and change experts focused on business transformation through the practical application of sustainability for operational improvement and strategic innovation. FairRidge brings a new framework for sustainability management that integrates strategy, operations, branding, measurement and organizational development to drive profitable business transformation.
Peter Whitehead is a Principal at FairRidge Group, with 25 years of management consulting, entrepreneurial and executive management experience. Peter earned a double honors degree in Industrial Engineering and Economics at the University of Birmingham, UK.