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FTC Green Guides Report Helps Marketers Avoid the Pitfalls of Greenwashing

Eric Justian
| Thursday September 19th, 2013 | 2 Comments

GM Report Vertical Artwork 091113“Greenwashing” is a threat to environmental responsibility. A new report titled How to Make Credible Green Marketing Claims: What Marketers Need to Know about the Updated FTC Green Guides gives marketers a thorough and illustrative overview of how to avoid the practice and preserve their company’s public image. The report is co-authored by Jacquelyn Ottman of J. Ottman Consulting and David Mallen of the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau.

“Greenwashing,” of course, refers to the intentional or accidental practice of claiming more environmental benefit from a product or service than is true. Not only does it open a company up to liability and class action lawsuits over false claims, it reduces company credibility. It poisons earnest attempts at creating environmentally responsible products, and sows doubt among the general public about legitimate claims and benefits.

As consumers increasingly seek healthier or environmentally friendly alternatives to products, companies work to communicate how their products suit those demands. Unfortunately, according to the 2013 Cone Green Gap Trend Tracker poll fewer than half, only 46 percent, of Americans trust companies’ claims about environmental benefits.

With this cloud of mistrust, also called “green fatigue,” how can companies who have legitimately “green” products connect with the consumers who want them?

To clean out the greenwashing, both marketers and consumers need to be educated about what a genuinely environmentally responsible product actually is.

Greenwashing isn’t always a case of dastardly marketers coming up with ways to fool people. The report on green marketing underscores that there are some genuinely difficult concepts and communications challenges at play. Environmental science is constantly evolving and learning and it’s hard for everybody to keep up. A green product is often highly situational, based on region. For example, cloth diapers might be environmentally responsible in a place with lots of water for laundry, but not at all environmentally responsible where water demands are stressed. Heck, I bought some boxed water recently and discovered the container needed to be recycled in a special way I had no access to. So, its environmental benefits played out better in a place where people have access to that. For me, not so much.

Honest, well-intentioned marketers can have a challenging time communicating the true environmental impact of a product.

This complexity is a fundamental challenge. Says Jacquelyn Ottman of J. Ottman Consulting, “Frankly, I’m not sure, because of the complexities of green, that greenwash — especially the inadvertent kind —  will ever be eradicated completely. But companies that follow the latest FTC update to a tee will certainly stand a chance.”

To help marketers and companies improve their communications, the Federal Trade Commission revised its guidelines for green marketing for 2012. At lot has changed since the previous guidelines of 1998. And today, there’s a lot more at stake for a company as bloggers and social media outlets are able to broadcast false or inaccurate claims around the world faster. Heck, there are even websites set up to police this sort of stuff.

How to Make Credible Green Marketing Claims is a informational toolkit for marketers which includes new consumer attitude charts, strategies for building credibility, a check list for credible green marketing and numerous case studies.

It’s very important that environmentally friendly companies grow and prosper. Right now, greenwashing and consumer distrust is standing in the way of green product potential. Proper application of FTC green guides can go a long way toward building consumer trust.

 


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  • Anne Michelsen

    Thanks, Eric, for calling attention to this very timely issue. The FTC has indeed been cracking down on green marketers who are not in compliance with the Green Guides. They seem to be doing it by industry; last spring a number of paint companies were called out for misleading “no VOC” claims, and just a few weeks ago several mattress manufacturers came under the gun for similar violations.

    As you say, greenwashing frequently isn’t intentional. Most companies truly want to do the right thing, but doing so can be complex and confusing. The Green Guides are actually intended to help marketers avoid common marketing mistakes that lead to consumer misunderstanding. Following them vigilantly can not only ensure compliance, but can also help companies maintain transparency and gain consumer trust.

    In addition to the excellent report you mention, I would like to call attention to another resource for marketers wishing to familiarize themselves with the FTC’s Green Guides. My white paper, “The FTC Green Guides Made Simple: A Companion Guide for Achieving Green Marketing Compliance,” helps explain the “reasons why” behind the the FTC’s guidelines, so you can quickly recognize whether – and how – your messaging needs to change. It is available free of charge at http://www.thegreeninkwell.com/ftc-green-compliance-white-paper/.

  • Scot Case

    Looking forward to reading the report. I just posted a related Triple Pundit article a day or two ago before learning about the Ottman-Malen project — http://lnkd.in/bAe-6vR