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Getting the Green Message Wrong Can Result in a Brand Experiencing Red

The health of our environment and people have been an important issue for decades. With sales of sustainable products in the United States predicted to top $150 million by the end of 2021, sustainability has shifted from a niche consumer interest to a mainstream value. Some of the most well-established companies are realizing the need to develop a new strategic approach to sustainability as consumers change purchase preferences based on products’ social or environmental impact at nearly six times faster than others.

GreenPrint, an environmental technology company, recently published the first “Business of Sustainability” Index which found that 64% of American consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products and that nearly 78% are more apt to buy products that are labeled as environmentally friendly. Sarah Shilling, CMO at UNLIMITED Group, recently said, “Sustainability communications are no longer a hygiene factor, but a priority factor. Many customers now look for sustainability as one of the priority filters to purchase, often over price.” The GreenPrint study also found that the majority of consumers doubt positive environmental claims made by companies. A majority of people revealed that they never or rarely believe sustainability claims.

Pete Davis, CEO and Co-Founder of GreenPrint says, “Businesses are in a bind. Broadcasting sustainability would capture an untapped consumer base but also sow distrust,” leading him to champion the use of third-party organizations whose purpose is to validate environmentally positive claims. “Companies must build trust and loyalty by clearly demonstrating that they share environmental goals with their customers. Defending and preserving our planet is not only the right thing to do, it’s good business. Companies that are able to navigate the business of sustainability will be best positioned for future success.”

Greenwashing is a term used to describe a company or organization that spends time and money on marketing themselves as environmentally friendly or on minimizing negative environmental impact. Jay Westerveld first penned the term “greenwashing” in a critical 1986 essay. Greenwashing includes the use of deceitful advertising claims that intentionally mislead consumers who prefer to buy goods and services from honest, environmentally conscious brands.

For decades, oil companies have been recognized as the most noted organizations taking liberties with creating messages that environmentalists proport are examples of greenwashing. It doesn’t help that producing and refining oil is a messy and historically polluting process that makes it difficult to believe any marketer of fossil fuels can be eco-friendly. Businesses can be fined up to $600,000 and individuals up to $200,000 if they are found guilty of breaching Commerce Commission guidelines governing messages about sustainability. Even the most trusted and familiar corporate brands can fall prey to fines and litigation for misleading advertising claims. In February 2017, Walmart paid $1 million to settle greenwashing claims that alleged the nation’s largest retailer sold plastics misleadingly touted as environmentally responsible.

To avoid the charge of being a greenwasher, marketers must refrain from over-embellishing the benefit of a brand’s product or service; using content and irrelevant information that lay-consumers are not likely to understand; attaching counterfeit labels to products that are similar to third-party endorsement organizations, or making statements that are unproven or are total fabrications. “Eco-friendly,” “organic,” “natural” and “green” are some over-used examples of terms that can lead consumers to mistrust a brand. A successful green marketing strategy is practical, honest and transparent. Getting caught making disingenuous claims will do considerable damage to a brand’s value that will be hard to correct with today’s savvy consumers.