February 05, 2008
Hyping your business or products as environmentally friendly can attract eco-concerned consumers and boost overall customer affinity. But beware! It holds just as many risks. You could get slapped with “greenwashing” your brand.
Here’s how to stay on the good side of hyper-sensitive green consumers and craft a message that makes everyone happy. Plus, lots of hotlinks to helpful resources.
You know the buzzwords: eco-friendly, all natural, biodegradable, organic. Marketers use them to target environmentally concerned or “green” consumers. Sometimes, though, marketers’ eco-claims are branded as misleading or false -- known as “greenwashing” -- and end up doing more harm than good.
Charges of greenwashing are likely to irk more consumers than ever before. According to a July 2007 survey by Yankelovich, 34% of U.S. consumers 16 and over felt “much more concerned about environmental issues” than a year before, and 13% felt that the environment was a “passionate concern.”
“We’ve done pretty extensive consumer research and we have found that roughly 20% of the market considers themselves green shoppers. [A sub-segment] within that are the hard-core greens” -- consumers who are truly passionate about the environment, says Scot Case, VP, TerraChoice, an environmental marketing agency.
Other green data:
- Consumers expect to double their spending on green products and services in the next year to reach $500 billion annually, according to an April 2007 ImagePower Green Brands Survey. The survey was conducted by three market research and consulting companies: WPP's Landor Associates; Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates; and Cohn & Wolfe.
- 99% of 1,018 consumer products surveyed were guilty of greenwashing, according to TerraChoice’s ‘Six Sins of Greenwashing’ study, which was released in November 2007. About 57% of those products were guilty of a “hidden trade-off” -- a product labeled green based on a narrow set of attributes without addressing other, possibly more impacting environmental factors.
Case says companies that greenwash risk setting off a chain reaction in the market. Hard-core green consumers are usually the first to denounce a ‘greenwasher’, which can influence the purchases of everyday green consumers. That ill will can spread to the other 80% of the market if conventional consumers start worrying about what else the company could be hiding.
Businesses that fall into that trap could risk being shut out of a growing market. “Greenwashing is growing rapidly, and I don’t think it’s intentional misrepresentation. I think it’s poor understanding of the issue,” Case says.
Learn how to avoid charges of greenwashing by crafting a green message that will make customers feel like eco-activists.
Be Up-front With Consumers
Your brand’s green image is affected by skeptical consumers. Winning their favor requires proving your environmental claims. Your products have to be genuinely friendly to the environment.
-> Step #1. Can your product be labeled green?
“Environmentally friendly” is a subjective term affected by many factors. It’s really hard to have a completely environmentally friendly product.
Here are some of the factors to consider:
o Raw materials used
o How materials are gathered
o Manufacturing processes
o Marketing methods
o Product’s use
o How the product is discarded
Take a careful look at each step in your product’s creation -- from concept to compost -- and look for areas where you could be criticized. “You need to know exactly what your worst critics will say about [your] products, because those are the roots of potential greenwashing charges,” Case says.
-> Step #2. Provide proof
If you truly believe your product is environmentally friendly, you have to be able to prove it.
“The hard-core green segments, the ones that are most willing to pay extra for green products, are also the most skeptical and demand the most proof,” Case says. “As a result, successful green marketing requires companies to require proof to back up any of their environmental claims.”
Here are two ways to provide proof:
#1. Make research results public
Post test results and ingredient lists on your website. Make sure anyone can get a detailed explanation that backs up your marketing claims. This page has to have real data and explanations, not marketing statements like “safe for your home and the environment.”
This approach helps convince the most skeptical consumers, but it is not a good strategy to target the everyday consumer. “What we find is that a lot of people, myself included, are lazy consumers,” Case says. “I don’t want to sort through a bunch of stuff like that.”
#2. Third-party certification
Getting a third-party environmental certification is a good way to convince the everyday and the green consumer that your products are Earth-friendly. A variety of industries offer them. (See hotlinks below for two directories.)
Four of the most recognizable certifications, according to green author Jacquelyn Ottman:
o Three arrows for recyclable products
o Energy Star symbols for energy-efficient products from the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy
o Green and white organic label from the Agriculture Department
o Checkmark tree for sustainably harvested wood from Forest Stewardship Council
However, some certifications, like Energy Star, only focus on one factor of environmental impact, and one is not enough to convince the most skeptical consumers, says Case.
-> Step #3. Craft your green message
Your green message has to appease two types of consumers: everyday and hard-core green. They have different motivations.
- Level of detail
“If you’re only distributing your products through tree-hugging hippie health food stores, you probably want a lot of that information up front and available immediately,” Case says. “But if you’re planning on distributing your product through some of the world’s largest retailers, the vast majority [of people] at this point do not seek that level of detail.”
- Don’t lead with green
“Consumers don’t buy a box of laundry detergent to save the planet. They buy it to get their clothes cleaned,” Ottman says. “That doesn’t mean you can’t talk about the greenness, but it’s better not to lead with it.”
- Language to use
“There is language that can drive sales, that is relevant no matter who is reviewing the message and is also meaningful to the hard-core environmental folks,” Case says. “When the hard-core environmental folks review it, they end up asking more detailed, more specific questions, which is where the role of certification actually comes into play, because you’re actually going to be able to back up their expectations.”
Case cited the phrase: “Safe for you and the environment.”
“Some people say, ‘Oh, that’s great. It’s safe for me, and, oh, look, it’s doing a good thing for the environment.’ But someone that is actually in the hard-core green segment reads that statement and wants additional information.”
Useful links related to this article
ConsumerReports GreenerChoices: Eco-labels center:
BuildingGreen.com: Behind the Logos: Understanding Green Product Certifications:
U.S. Department of Agriculture: Laws and Regulations:
U.S. Environmental Protect Agency: Compliance Assistance:
TerraChoice’s Six Sins of Greenwashing study:
Cohn & Wolfe: Consumers Will Double Spending on Green:
J. Ottman Consulting: