By Dan Welch
Partner, Story + Welch
Greenwashing will grow as a marketing weapon (that backfires)
In December, Bank of America announced that it would stop financing coal companies that practice the widely criticized mountaintop removal method of extracting coal (a lucrative practice which basically involves cutting the top off of a mountain, extracting the coal, and pushing everything else into the valleys below).
Ignore the fact that no one could really find a mining company that would be affected by Bank of America’s announcement (one mining industry spokesman called it “grandstanding”), or that BoA wouldn’t elaborate on what the company was sacrificing in choosing this noble course of action. Like a growing number of companies, Bank of America wanted a pat on the back for “going green.”
Greenwashing – the eco-pejorative version of whitewashing – is a problem because if affects the companies that truly are making a positive environmental impact in the world. The fact that it is misleading is not the main problem. Rather, it is that the mad rush to be green will engender a growing cynicism among consumers. And when the line is blurred to the point of invisibility between companies actually making a difference and companies only claiming to do so, there are no real winners.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is updating its guidelines for making environmental claims, and they will likely ensnare a big-name company once in a while. But, as with other forms of advertising regulation, the real arbiter of power is not the regulatory body, but instead the consumer.
Increasing during 2009 and beyond, expect this growing consumer cynicism to punish companies who make clumsy attempts at greenwashing. And for marketers and PR practitioners who represent authentic green companies, cutting through the green clutter will require ever-increasing creativity to gain consumer trust. Finally, this cynicism may ultimately make most first-person “we are green” marketing claims ineffectual. Look for the rise of objective influencers who help consumers navigate the green maze with implicit or explicit endorsements.