This is Part 2 of the Green Advertising : Feeling The Pressure post a few weeks ago. Apologies if you’ve been on tenterhooks waiting for it!
The concept of Greenwashing has been around, it seems, for ages. The trouble is, with the public, NGOs and various other bodies keeping a sharp look out, a company can easily fall into the greenwash trap without meaning to.
This is especially true on websites where content tends to be scrutinised much less before publication than, say, broadcast advertisements or print op-ed pieces.
Here then are top five traps to avoid on your websites and in all advertising in general.
1) Don’t brand yourself as Green, Eco-friendly, Sustainable, Ethical etc
Why? Because it’s vague. Anyone can claim to be green or eco-friendly, even if the extent it goes to is just to switch off the lights and ensure the pot plants don’t die. The more these terms are used, the more cynicism is building up against them.
However they are useful, catch all terms which the public understand and (to a certain extent) cleave to. So, if you are going to use them, be prepared to substantiate what you mean. In other words…
2) Always back up your claims with figures
If you can do this, go ahead and claim to be green, eco- etc. The trouble, it’s almost impossible to do this, which is why I say “don’t” in the first place.
In the meantime, there’s always the other little sleights of hand which trip up companies. “One of the leading…” is a great one, as is “one of the least harmful…” perhaps. According to who? Similarly, if you’re going to claim to be recyclable or biodegradable, set it into context. You must have done some testing along the way to prove this, so where’s the harm in sharing it?
These figures don’t need to be top notch scientific studies (well not always anyway), but you do need to….
3) Keep your figures straightforward and transparent
“Lies damned lies and statistics” : we know the phrase well. One of the oldest tricks in the stats book is to trumpet “a 50% increase!” in something. Sounds great, but if the starting point is only 1%, raising it to 1.5% isn’t usually such a big deal.
A similar stats sleight of hand is to concentrate on one aspect and ignore another. For example, increasing your use of recycled paper could (once upon a time, but thankfully no longer) be damaging for the environment because of the increase in chlorine bleach required to whiten the paper.
The key is to be sure that the stats you publish are aimed at informing, not bamboozling, your potential clients and customers. Publish the context of the stats at the same time; this will prove your commitment.
4) Ensure your focus is material to your industry
One of the most serious greenwash traps is to concentrate on office administration issues (such as waste recycling and carbon emissions) rather than anything which is specifically material to your business. This is not to belittle waste and carbon issues: these are the focus of most regulatory pressure at present and because of their commonality across all businesses.
However they are nothing but the start of creating a sustainable business, so stopping there can be interpreted as lacking commitment and lead to accusations of greenwashing.
Conversely, thinking deeply about how your business can become sustainable from top to tail can quickly lead a company into being a thought leader in its industry, something which in itself can be worth its weight in gold for marketing purposes.
5) Don’t lie
That may seem obvious, but it happens much more often than you may think. For example, the EnergyStar brand got dragged through the mud at the beginning of this year when it was discovered that products could be certified for the scheme by producing ludicrously ridiculous efficiency figures (let alone plausible but actually false ones).
A far more frequent form of untruth is to mislead. Linguistically there is a difference, legally (and some would argue, morally) the distinction is far less clear. One of my favourite forms is “Our CSR report complies with the GRI Guidelines”, without any certification process having been gone through. Another is for a company to report UK only sustainability figures, when its international operations are potentially more damaging and unsustainable.
It’s often said that sustainability is all about changing the entire culture of business, revolutionising the entire process of making money to the point where profit is an outcome not a sole aim.
If this is true then the same has to be said for advertising and those bad habits which are based on mendacity and spin will have to be unlearned.
Latest posts by Chris Milton (see all)
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- Seven Best Practices for Sustainability Websites | Part 1/2 - February 14, 2013