How to Greenwash Better

Thoughts from Seth Bauer Presented at Sustainable Brands ‘09
Sus%20Brands%2009.jpgGreenwashing is nearly impossible to avoid. No matter how credible, clear and consistent your message, someone can always find a flaw in your marketing claims. The media that monitor green claims serve an important function, protecting consumers from deceptive marketing practices. But with so much focus in the media on exposing misleading or exaggerated green claims, many companies are discouraged from pursuing legitimate, green product innovation. And for those who do, many remain silent for fear of the dreaded greenwashing label.
This apprehension has resulted in “green muting” according to Seth Bauer in his presentation “Thoughts For Companies on the Verge of Doing the Right Thing” given at the Sustainable Brands ’09 conference. He encouraged the audience of brand builders not to hold back. Continue to innovate and continue to develop green marketing messages. But by learning the common greenwashing traps, and by understanding there is no perfect green product, you can learn to “greenwash better” making your messaging as credible as possible.

The Six Sins of Greenwashing
Bauer referred to the well-known 2007 greenwashing survey, conducted by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing that resulted in the “Six Sins of Greenwashing” report (later updated in 2009 to the Seven Sins). The researchers visited big box retailers and analyzed almost 2000 consumer products. Nearly all were guilty of at least one of the greenwashing sins identified by TerraChoice.
The conclusion: there is almost no perfect green product, and consequently no perfect green marketing message. We are all Greenwashers!
Greenwash Better
Several recent surveys show a growing awareness among consumers about environmental issues, and also suggest consumers favor companies that are environmentally friendly. But at the same time, consumers are unclear about which claims are legitimate and which companies can be trusted. This puts the onus on marketers to proceed carefully, making sure marketing messages are based on sound science, honesty, and transparency.
Bauer offered these key takeaways:
We are Not Worms
“Everything we make uses resources and creates waste,” Bauer reminded the audience. Therefore, your products will never achieve perfect “green-ness.” Don’t let this fact hold you back from moving in that direction.

Don’t shy away from doing the right thing even if you can’t go all the way. Do recognize that for companies as for consumers, going green is a gradual process, not an all or nothing plunge.

The Bar Can be Set at Any Height
The standards for green claims can change at any time, and are different depending on the product and context. Don’t disregard this fact when developing your marketing message.
There Will Always be Competition
No matter how far you go, there will always be someone at your side who is doing the same or better than you. Don’t get discouraged and “don’t disparage the competition for moving in the right direction, but do hold them to high standards for science and honesty.”
Educate Your Customers
Remember when developing your marketing message, consumers generally want to know four things:
1. What CAN I buy?
2. What do I save?
3. What else can I do?
4. How important is this, really?
Helping your customers understand the environmental benefits of your products and where these benefits fit in the big picture helps build a credible message.
Lessons from the Front Lines
Bauer’s presentation was well received by the audience, especially those just starting out on this path and looking for encouragement and direction. 3P readers feel free to share your lessons from the front lines. Any marketers out there want to contribute their thoughts on how to greenwash better?
Seth Bauer directs East Coast operations for Cooler, Inc. He was the founding editor of National Geographic Green Guide and editor in chief of Body + Soul magazine. Currently he blogs for Huffington Post on green topics, and can be followed and reached via Twitter at sbgreen. All materials used by permission of Seth Bauer.

Jim Witkin is a writer and researcher based in Silicon Valley focused on business, technology and the environment. His work has been featured in the New York Times and Guardian newspapers on topics that include: sustainable business practices, clean tech, the environment and next generation transportation technologies. He holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School. Contact him at

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