Thursday, June 18, 2009

"Green" claims come out in the wash

I caught a news item this morning that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has charged three corporations — including K-Mart — with making false and unsubstantiated claims that their paper products were "biodegradable."

The case states that the products in question, paper plates, moist towelettes, and disposable dry towels, while ultimately biodegradable, do not completely decompose in what the FTC's Green Guides define as "a reasonably short time".

Advertisers are increasingly under scrutiny for their environmental claims, both from regulators and consumers. In our post-authoritarian culture, people no longer assume that corporations are telling them the truth. Instead, they can do their own research online through whistle-blowing sites and social media communities.

The act of making false or misleading claims in environmental marketing even has a name: Greenwashing. Originally coined by Greenpeace, the term has taken hold as the rallying cry of a very vocal movement that includes Terrachoice, an environmental marketing consulting and certification company that's our downstairs neighbour in the Acart Building.

Terrachoice was also a featured partner in our Deep Green marketing conference last week. The company's President, Scott McDougall, told the Trans-Canada Advertising Agency Network about "The Seven Sins of Greenwashing", a simple idea that has garnered them international acclaim.

Here are the sins, according to Scott:

1. Sin of the Hidden Trade-off
A claim suggesting that a product is ‘green’ based on a narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues. Paper, for example, is not necessarily environmentally-preferable just because it comes from a sustainably-harvested forest. Other important environmental issues in the paper-making process, such as greenhouse gas emissions, or chlorine use in bleaching may be equally important.

2. Sin of No Proof

An environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification. Common examples are facial tissues or toilet tissue products that claim various percentages of post-consumer recycled content without providing evidence.

3. Sin of Vagueness
A claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer. ‘All-natural’ is an example. Arsenic, uranium, mercury, and formaldehyde are all naturally occurring, and poisonous. ‘All natural’ isn’t necessarily ‘green’.

4. Sin of Worshiping False Labels
A product that, through either words or images, gives the impression of third-party endorsement where no such endorsement exists; fake labels, in other words.

5. Sin of Irrelevance
An environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products. ‘CFC-free’ is a common example, since it is a frequent claim despite the fact that CFCs are banned by law.

6. Sin of Lesser of Two Evils

A claim that may be true within the product category, but that risks distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole. Organic cigarettes could be an example of this Sin, as might the fuel-efficient sport-utility vehicle.

7. Sin of Fibbing
Environmental claims that are simply false. The most common examples were products falsely claiming to be Energy Star certified or registered.

Some of these sins are difficult for a working adman to hear. We've got a stake in believing that we must always find and promote our client's unique selling proposition, even if the only unique thing about it is that none of the competitors thought to say it first (the sin of irrelevancy). Remember "it's toasted", from Madmen? It really happened!

Avoiding Greenwashing will be an ongoing challenge for all of us in the social issues marketing industry, especially when Canada isn't as strict on regulation and enforcement. (Worldwide, Terrachoice believes Greenwashing Affects 98% of Products Including Toys, Baby Products and Cosmetics.)

It's not easy being green in a media-savvy culture. But as G.I. Joe said, "knowing is half the battle"...

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