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FTC Green Guides Report Helps Marketers Avoid the Pitfalls of Greenwashing

"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.


Eric Justian headshotEric Justian

Eric Justian is a professional writer living near the natural sugar sand beaches and singing sand dunes of Lake Michigan in Muskegon, Michigan. When he's not wrangling his kids or tapping at his computer, he likes to putter in his garden, catch king salmon from the Big Lake, or go pan fishing with his boys. As a successful blogger his main focus has been energy, Great Lakes issues and local food. Eric is a founding member of the West Michgian Jobs Group, a non-profit organization that evolved from a Facebook page called Yest to West Michigan Wind Power which now has over 8000 followers. West Michigan Jobs Group promotes independent businesses and sustainable industries in the West Michigan area. As the Executive Director of that organization he has advocated renewable energy as both a clean energy alternative for Michigan and a new industry with which to diversify our economy and spark Michigan innovation and jobs.

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