How bad is greenwash? Well, it depends.

Siegelbaum: The debate between Joel Makower of GreenBiz.com and Jeffrey Hollender of Seventh Generation on the magnitude of greenwashing has been fascinating, although a tad touchy.

It illustrates some compelling contrasts:

  • Privately held companies enjoy relative freedom to pursue sustainability, while public companies suffer from a psychotic drive to deliver unreasonable short-term profits.
  • There's a big difference between whole-company and singular product assessments.
  • Products are often the only face of a company for most people. And as they "green," companies often miss an opportunity to to showcase their environmental efforts: putting an 800-number on their newly-minted green products that would connect consumers with R&D or the sustainability group. Instead, they often make make isolated, environmental product claims without any context for the company as a whole.
  • Activist and non-activist bloggers as well as government agencies and non-profits employ a range of approaches to help "course correct" misleading statements and develop third-party standards and definitions that everyone can play by.

Without going into the particular examples Hollender uses (and yes, advertising a product that's not for sale is pure cowpie, please!), companies in the throes of sustainability change would fare much better against the greenwashing pundits if they:

  • Connected PR and marketing firms and in-house branding with their sustainability and R&D folks to avoid hyperbole in green marketing claims;
  • Aligned their lobbying efforts with their sustainability progress --it's almost impossible to take a company's sustainability work seriously when its lobbying mimics that of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and underscores the relentless pursuit of that ill-conceived notion that inefficiency will make the US more competitive; and
  • Worked with NGOs and government agencies like EPA's Design for Environment program and the Environmental Working Group to collaborate on US chemical policy reform (often at the core of many product greenwashing claims in consumer products).

Consumers are confused and greenwashing does cause harm: to companies in the process of change that do deserve to be supported in that continuum of change, and to consumers whose quests to green their lives are strangled by cynicism when they find out the product didn't live up to its fuzzy marketing hyperbole. Greenwashing is also a distraction at some level from the fundamental, core things that must change to save our collective cabooses.

For a nostalgic example, check out this Saturn VUE ad from way back in 2002: (Credit: CorpWATCH)

For anyone who read Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society, by the peripatetic Peter Senge and his colleagues, we are being faced by the indisputable limitations of an earth that will get her way.

This urgency and the true magnitude of what's at stake will require much more than a 20-year roll-out of greener products and carbon accounting. It will require fundamentally changing the values (opens PDF) upon which companies operate, including the role of financial institutions, NGOs, and other stakeholders.

It will require understanding how to market (opens PDF) with context and balance and, though we know it's difficult, opening up boardroom conversations to the people and communities with interests at stake. It may require the company of the future.

"It is no use saying, 'We are doing our best.'You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary." -- Winston Churchill

Nicolow: With environmental concerns firmly entering the mainstream, the growing demand for environmentally responsible products has most conventional companies scrambling to demonstrate that they're green. It's quicker and easier to change a message than to change business processes, so we'll inevitably see some pretty egregious greenwash in the lag before these companies (hopefully) begin to make real changes.

Some in the marketing industry envision a coming change, not just toward more environmentally responsible consumer products, but away from the rampant consumerism that defined the past two decades. In an interesting July 30th post on Off-Grid.net, Alex Benady repots that "advanced industrial countries like the US and UK are moving toward a post-consumer era -- less materialist and more spiritual."

Benady quotes Sir Martin Sorrell, the CEO of WPP Group (the world's largest communications services group) in his view that "conspicuous consumption is not productive, and should be discouraged." Sorrell chastises companies like Apple for "fostering a mindset of super-consumption, where expensive items made at a vast cost to the earth's resources quickly become unfashionable and are expected not to last."

Benady cites John Grant, author of the "Green Marketing Manifesto," who contends that consumers will not just shift their spending to "low-energy goods," such as local foods, but also fundamentally re-define the concept of "ownership." Grant foresees 'fractional ownership' where products are shared (like Zip Car), and 'treasuring' with a return to the higher-quality products that are repaired and maintained.

Grant sees these changes coming in the next five to ten years, in which case the "advertising industry just cannot exist in its current form."

Interesting times.

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