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Walking the Tightrope: How to Avoid Green Marketing Nightmares

Words by 3p Contributor
Leadership & Transparency

By Scot Case

Promoting the environmental or sustainability improvements of a product or service can be a tricky high-wire act that can give marketing professionals nightmares. One must balance the need for easy-to-understand, consumer-friendly messages with the complex legal and scientific requirements necessary to validate the green marketing claims.

While marketers are balancing those competing needs much more cautiously than when the initial “Sins of Greenwashing” reports were released, there have been recent slips on the tightrope:

  • A global beverage company was recently accused of greenwashing, making false or misleading environmental claims, in Denmark. The Danish consumer ombudsman claimed the company’s PlantBottle packaging exaggerates its environmental benefits and fails to meet Danish environmental marketing laws. The company quickly clarified its marketing claims.

  • The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is also keeping careful watch for greenwashing, giving three mattress manufacturers sleepless nights, forcing two paint companies to cover up misleading claims, and generally ensuring that everyone is following the updated FTC Green Marketing Guides.

It is not just government agencies around the world examining green marketing claims. Social media sites are full of concern. People are fascinated with potential #greenwashing on Twitter. Greenwashing is also discussed on Facebook, Pinterest and on video sharing sites. There is even poetry devoted to it.

Marketing professionals walking the green marketing tightrope have found several successful, interrelated strategies to help them maintain their balance:

  • Provide public proof for public environmental claims – If an environmental claim is important enough to promote, it is important enough to verify. Unlike other marketing claims, consumers do not have the resources to independently verify the accuracy of environmental claims. Consumers can’t look at a product and see the recycled content. They can’t see energy-efficiency, water-efficiency, or the use of less hazardous materials. They need proof. Provide it with third-party certifications to legitimate environmental standards, third-party validation of environmental claims, environmental product declarations (EPDs) and/or lifecycle assessments (LCAs) to support environmental claims.

  • Review the FTC guides and National Advertising Division (NAD) cases – Marketers should be very familiar with the FTC Green Guides, which outline FTC’s clarifications of how to make legitimate environmental marketing claims without running afoul of federal law.  They should also review recent NAD cases and decisions. NAD is a program of the Council of Better Business Bureaus and provides an alternative dispute resolution process to address concerns about inaccurate advertising claims, clarifying best practices in the process.

  • Be specific: Avoid vague language and claims – Make specific, meaningful, and verifiable claims that leave no room for misinterpretation of the environmental statements.

  • Expect scrutiny – Environmental marketing is tricky. The goal is to use simple language that all consumers can understand while being accurate and specific enough to avoid the wrath of the eight to nine percent of dark green consumers who are most educated on environmental issues and who are most likely to recognize greenwashing, whether it is deliberate or not. All environmental marketing efforts should expect scrutiny from members of the dark green environmental demographic. They demand the details supporting any environmental claim and they complain loudly when it is unavailable. Make sure they can find it on product packaging, advertisements, and websites.

  • Make additional information available – Dark green consumers are genuinely interested in learning what kinds of efforts companies are making to improve the environmental performance of their products and practices. Make sure these consumers have access to additional information on company websites or elsewhere so they can learn about and engage with a company’s continual improvement efforts.

  • Ask the right questions – Instead of asking “What can I say about this product that’s green?” ask questions like “How does this product’s sustainability performance compare to other products in the category?”, “What has the manufacturer done to improve the product’s sustainability performance?”, or “Does this product meet existing sustainability standards for the product category?”  Every product can make some sort of green claim. The challenge is that not every product should.

  • Have a good story to tell – The most effective green marketing campaigns are built around companies that have good environmental stories to tell beyond the specific claims made on the product package. Unbeknownst to many consumers, the most significant environmental improvements are not product-specific. They are happening behind the scenes at the companies designing, manufacturing, packaging, transporting, and recycling products. Unfortunately, these kinds of improvements typically do not drive point-of-sale purchasing decisions. They do, however, go a long way towards building credibility among the dark green demographic and that green aura does trickle down to mainstream consumer perceptions.

  • Be humble – Announcing that you have the greenest product ever is going to attract a lot of unwanted attention from dark green environmentalists focused on what you have not yet addressed rather than what you have accomplished. Companies with the greenest images make environmental claims with a great deal of humility. They use language such as “We’re attempting to improve our environmental performance. Here is what we’ve accomplished so far.” Such an approach is much more honest, engaging, and believable.

The green marketing tightrope is a seemingly thin line between green legitimacy and green hype. It is possible to walk the tightrope to greater recognition, greater respect, and greater sales, but it requires balancing marketing puffery with third-party proof.


Scot Case has been researching and promoting effective green marketing and responsible purchasing since 1993 and was co-author of the original “Sins of Greenwashing” study and advisor to subsequent editions. He is the Market Development Director for UL Environment. Contact him via email at scot.case@ul.com or in Reading, PA, at 610-779-3770. Image Credit: UL Environment. This article represents the views of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the views of UL Environment or its affiliates or subsidiaries. This article is for general information purposes only and is not meant to convey legal or other professional advice.

[image credit: Premshree Pillai: Flickr cc]

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