Keen to be seen with a green sheen?

10. April 2009 20:31

A press release from the Carbon Trust caught my eye a few weeks ago. It announced the results of a You Gov poll into consumer attitudes towards buying green:

"The research shows that a business's green credentials have a significant impact on consumer buying choices. Two thirds (65%) of consumers say it's important to buy from environmentally responsible companies, with one in seven (14%) saying they have voted with their feet by deciding not to buy from a company based on their environmental reputation and almost a quarter based on a company's ethical reputation..."

Quite properly, it turns out that 59% of us are sceptical about the environmental claims companies make (sounds a bit low actually), and 44% of consumers would like more information on what companies are actually doing to be environmentally responsible. Public sector organisations are expected to be even more proactive in tackling climate change and cutting carbon.

But where do we find the 'proof' we need to judge an organisation's green claims?

Interestingly, it turns out that the two most important criteria currently used by consumers to make a judgement are:

* what they read in the media (38%) and
* third party endorsement or accreditation (34%).

Green advertising is by far the least convincing, and makes an easy target for campaign groups dedicated to weeding out greenwash. For example, at the end of last year Greenpeace launched its first Emerald Paintbrush Awards for advertising greenwash (great video guys!), and it surely won't be long before the UK gets its own version of this website which allows people to rate advertisements against a Greenwashing Index. Unsurprisingly, the advertising industry's regulatory body is now proposing a clampdown on bogus green claims following a big rise in complaints over recent years (the consultation is open until 19 June 09 by the way, in case you'd like to contribute).

Probably largely because of the eco-hyperbole of so many advertising campaigns, media and public scrutiny of green claims is getting sharper by the day. The Guardian launched an online column about greenwashing last year, and there are plenty of bloggers prepared to cry foul - take a look at Mark Brinkley's wonderful EcoBollocks Awards for example.

PR consultants like myself have to be very careful. Most journalists are born cynical, but in a recession like this their eyebrows shoot even higher when companies in the construction and property industries tout their environmental credentials. If our clients are to protect their hard-won reputations, they need to know how best to avoid even accidental greenwash (and it is usually unintentional).

A couple of years ago a marketing firm in the States, TerraChoice, conducted a study into environmental claims in US consumer markets. The result was its (trademarked!) "Six Sins of Greenwashing".

This work is just as relevant to companies in the UK's construction and property industries. 

For example, the Six Sins were brought to life by Nick Reilly, a sustainability specialist working in the UK construction industry, when he considered how they might apply to a contractor.

Inspired by Nick, here are some of my own examples of the Six Sins in action:

1. Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off - eg. our exciting new building product will ensure thermal mass and help you reduce carbon emissions (even though the other greenhouse gases involved in its manufacture are horrendous, it creates greater dust pollution during transportation and installation etc...)

2. Sin of No Proof - eg. our new low energy homes deliver the highest standards of eco-friendly living (but no, we haven't done any testing or post-occupancy evaluation and we haven't got around to formal Code assessment yet...)

3. Sin of Vagueness - eg. our products are natural, chemical-free and made from recycled materials (how much or what sort of recycled content we can't tell you, and actually nothing is ever chemical-free...)

4. Sin of Irrelevance - eg. we guarantee all our products to be ozone-friendly and CFC-free (never mind the fact that CFCs were banned from use 20 years ago...)

5. Sin of Fibbing - eg. our building methods achieve outstanding levels of airtightness (when we build in Germany, but not here in the UK...)

6. Sin of Lesser of Two Evils - eg. we use the highest quality hardwoods to reduce use of artificial materials and ensure a more natural living environment (although we don't particularly care where the hardwood comes from...)

TerraChoice found that Sins 1 and 2 (hidden trade-off and no proof) are by far the most common errors made in green marketing campaigns, both in consumer and B2B markets. I have no doubt we would find the same among many of the organisations in our sector.

In a future blog post I shall consider ways in which we can work together to avoid these sins. [Postscript: See blog post '10 Steps to Absolution']

About the author

Liz Male

Liz Male is a PR and communications professional specialising in construction, property and sustainability in the built environment. This is Liz's blog on the foundations of good communications, covering everything from the basics of media relations to topical ponderings on strategic comms issues. Follow Liz's more concise thoughts on Twitter: @lizmale

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