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Inconvenient Truth: Marketers' Environmental Claims Need Substance

COLUMBUS, Ohio ( -- The greening of business is a good thing: It improves the chance of bequeathing an inhabitable world to future generations; provides myriad revenue opportunities; and offers a powerful way to connect with consumers developing a strong environmental conscience. It's only natural then, that green already has become the marketing platform of choice for thousands of companies, among them General Electric, Wal-Mart, BP, S.C. Johnson, Honda and DuPont.

Today, companies that go green have to craft strategies that dig beneath the surface of packaging and 30-second spots. Being environmentally savvy means getting your hands dirty with science, emotions and the planet.

Yet going green is a perilous business, especially for those whose actions aren't as substantive as their ads. The way this wave of planet hugging differs from the last one, which petered out in the '90s, is simple: scrutiny and accountability. Token environmental platitudes so boastfully touted won't cut it. Glossy green print ads and TV spots will be easy targets for critics, and will be viewed as exercises in "greenwashing" or "eco-pornography" if their roots are not sufficiently deep.

"Most marketers know just enough about the world of green to be dangerous to themselves and others," said Joel Makower, author of "The Green Consumer," published in 1990, before green was the new black, and a marketing consultant whose clients have included General Motors Corp., GE and Stonyfield Farms. "This is not simply about doing what you've always done and giving it a green sheen. You are talking about very sophisticated and complex concepts that combine unbelievably difficult science with deep emotional connections, and there's a tendency to put a green smiley face on everything."

More than a fresh coat of (lead-free) paint In a time when a simple Google search can unearth reams of information, even the best-meaning marketers are open to attacks by watchdog groups. "We are certainly aware that's how the drill goes down," said Jim Adams, executive director-marketing at Chipotle. "You start doing good things, and people expect you to do more, and they want you to do more. That's why we do these things incrementally. There aren't many things we dive into head first," he said. "You become a bigger target. When the underdog becomes the top dog, you want to knock them down."

It's a reality evident in Levi's launch of the "Eco" organic-cotton line in mid-2006. As it slowly added organic cotton to its products for several years until it reached 100%, the company did not tout the addition. Why? It feared drawing attention to data from the USDA and EPA that a third of a pound of chemicals -- fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides -- are used to grow a pound of cotton in the U.S.

Levi said it has other reasons. "It would be impossible for us to go all organic," said spokeswoman Amy Jasmer, noting that only 1% of the cotton grown in the U.S. is organic. "The opportunity is to try and drive demand."

Continuing challenge But even as consumer demand spikes -- organic-cotton apparel sales are expected to jump to $2.6 billion in 2008, according to Organic Exchange -- this represents a continuing challenge.

"Do you really dare put your head above the parapet by touting your greenness and attract very knowledgeable consumers who are going to crawl all over your business ... and Greenpeace and every other environmental group you can think of?" asked Mike Longhurst, senior VP at McCann Erickson, London, and a spokesman on sustainability issues for the European equivalent of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. "If consumers think they can catch you telling a half-truth, they will."

For consumer-product marketers, it represents a huge challenge globally: "You can't go talking about green products in a developed market and meanwhile you are selling that old formula in China and India and polluting rivers."

'Green-motivated' And while some studies show many consumers still simply don't care (a July 2006 study by Landor Associates showed that 58% of the general population considers itself "not green interested"), in today's age of blogs, word-of-mouth and protest e-mail blasts, it's the 17% identified in Landor's study as "green-motivated" you need to worry about.

This growing segment of shoppers goes to sites such as, where a quick search of any brand name or company turns up a "Responsible Shopper Profile." Plug in Target Stores, and up pops a lengthy accounting of the retailer's environmental sins, with links to campaigns such as one by Rainforest Relief decrying the retailer's use of endangered tropical wood in outdoor and children's furniture.

Certainly sites like this aren't mainstream, but even a marginally concerned consumer might launch a search before buying. There is now a National Green Pages -- an online equivalent of the Yellow Pages -- and Sierra Club-brand mutual funds, where only companies with top-notch environmental records make the cut.

Amid the noise, category by category, a series of battles for the title of greenest brand rages. Within each category, the battle typically swirls around owning a single word or term. For paint, it's the elimination of volatile organic compounds. The U.S.'s three largest paint sellers -- Lowe's, Home Depot and Sherwin Williams -- have added paint lines without VOCs.

You're probably not immune Don't think you've got a lightning-rod issue in your category? Maybe it's just not on your radar. In marketing's environmental era, the interconnectedness of everything becomes painfully clear.

Palm oil, once praised as a "renewable fuel," experienced a spike in demand (partly driven by food companies eager to find a solution to trans-fat bans) but now is linked to the potential extinction of the orangutan and the sun bear. So what once appeared a godsend has ended up nothing of the sort.

Palm oil's problems have been amplified as environmentalism goes mainstream. The Columbus Zoo has asked vendors to eliminate products containing palm oil from unsustainable sources, said Barbara Revard, director-program planning. "We're not asking consumers to boycott it; we just made a decision in our purchasing power," she said, noting an alert has been sent to 200 zoos in the U.S. to do the same thing.

Not your problem? Nearly 10% of all supermarket products use palm oil.

A new cost of entry Another threat raised by environmental marketing is parity. Green eventually will cease to be a competitive edge and emerge as another cost of entry, no matter what your industry.

Home Depot, for example, beat its competitors in the green-labeling game with the launch of its ambitious Eco Options line of more than 2,500 products. "Once we get someone hooked on Eco Options, why would they go to another store that doesn't offer something similar? It's about choice," said Roger Adams, senior-VP chief marketing officer at Home Depot. The question is, however, what will happen when Lowe's and other giants offer similar choices -- possibly at lower prices.

Interestingly, despite the ambitious program, Mr. Adams said he does not see "green" as the defining trend in marketing today. "But it has a lot of room for growth, and we think it's the right thing to do," he said, pointing to a double-digit increase in sales of compact fluorescent light bulbs and a 30% jump in sales of EnergyStar appliances in 2006.

C'mon, Ted Then there's the question of truly making a difference or simply marketing one. With apologies to Ted Turner, it's a stretch to tell consumers he made "the world a better place," as his restaurant-chain ads maintain. "Eat great. Do good. Ted's Montana Grill is more than a restaurant; it's just what the world ordered. Recyclable paper menus, paper straws and reusable glass are just a few of the ways we do our part to help protect the environment. You can do yours simply by enjoying any of our authentic, made-from-scratch entrees." Reusable glass? You mean those wine glasses every restaurant uses?

Credibility lies in the creative execution, and invoking Gandhi is fine if you're a civil-rights leader, but not if you're a clothing retailer. White House Black Market prints its catalog on 30% post-consumer-waste paper, a self-described "small stride" announced though a famous quote by the Buddhist leader: "Be the change you wish to see in the world."

Such lofty environmental platitudes can easily attract a backlash of skepticism. Wal-Mart has taken pains to loudly tout its sustainability initiatives, yet critics lambaste it for weakening the "organic" label. They say Wal-Mart's organics are sourced in China, not on small-scale farms, and transported thousands of miles, spewing carbon emissions en route.

If you talk to "deep green" consumers, the only way to stop global warming is to drive down consumption. And that's never going to jibe with the role marketing and advertising plays: to drive consumption, increase sales year over year and move the proverbial needle by selling more, not less. Small, incremental changes aren't enough, but that's essentially what most brands are pitching.

Being upfront The smartest campaigns bring the green issue to the forefront. HSBC has launched a "checking account with a conscience," in which customers must pay three bills online to qualify. In exchange, customers get a green kit, which includes compact fluorescent light bulbs, magazine subscriptions, coupons and a reusable grocery bag.

"We don't pretend we are perfectly green or perfect environmentally," said Kevin Martin, head of customer marketing at HSBC. "At the end of the day, we have an aspiration to help our customers be more aware of the environment. It's not about HSBC being green."

But as awareness spikes, so, too, will skepticism.

Just ask GE, which in June 2005 launched its lauded, expensive and beautifully produced Ecomagination ad campaign. GE has done a lot to improve the environment: Its photovoltaic technologies (that's solar power to most of us) and wind turbines are reducing some nations' dependence on fossil fuels; its purification systems are reducing water waste; and its work on more-fuel-efficient and quieter jet and locomotive engines has been hailed as significant in many quarters. Yet Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, slams the campaign as "astonishing hypocrisy."

What particularly irks him is GE's promotion of its "green" locomotives in a series of spots and a video on about its Evolution Series Locomotive, in which narrator Kevin Kline asks: "What is progress? When increased performance and energy conservation successfully coexist." Meanwhile, Mr. O'Donnell said, GE has lobbied to weaken a series of EPA proposals to reduce smog and soot levels and replace decade-old standards for diesel locomotives.

Troubling disconnect That disconnect between marketing and reality is what Mr. O'Donnell finds most troubling, especially if it "lulls consumers into thinking everything is taken care of." He added, "Do they become anesthetized by advertising and propaganda?"

The campaign, in reality, talks a good deal of platitudes, touting businesses that have yet to reach a critical mass. Yet, some -- including GE -- argue it should be credited with creating demand and building a market for so-called renewable fuels.

It is wise to remember critics will not cease to raise concerns about the true impact of green initiatives. Dozens of brands, for example, have incorporated carbon offsets -- where consumers can calculate the carbon impact of a purchase and then pay to have a tree planted somewhere in the world -- into their marketing platforms. Honda offers a month of offsets to U.K. buyers of music acts that promote carbon-free trees. Travelocity users can calculate the carbon footprint of a flight and pay to offset it.

So what could be bad about that? The "positive impact is canceled out by justifying and condoning a negative one: implying that we can consume at current guilt-free rates as long as we have the money to salve our consciences," according to U.K.-based Corporate Watch.

To borrow a word from the movement, any marketing program should be "sustainable." If you don't really make a difference, don't market as if you do.