Greenwashing’s Two Edged Sword

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Thank you to those who wave the flag of “Greenwashing” at those who are not walking their talk.

I work with businesses across the country and I can confirm that the fear of being tarred with greenwashing is a motivating force firmly in place inside Corporate America. However, I am also beginning to see evidence from my national network of going green businesses that the fear of being branded as greenwashing is also slowing sustainability’s adoption. The following paraphrases something I heard three times from within my network of companies that are going green: “We don’t want to advertise what we are doing for fear of being labeled as greenwashing by environmentalists.”

Do you remember when the Sierra Club endorsed Green Works, the home cleaning product from Clorox? Charges of “sell out” were hurled at the Sierra Club. In hindsight, my market research suggests Green Works is often the first green product purchased by a consumer experimenting with the concept of “going green.” So did Sierra Club sell out or were they helping pioneer the first sustainability adoption-steps by consumers? Also Green Work’s achieving $100 million in annual revenues has demonstrated to the rest of corporate America that green can be mass marketed.

Market research is now documenting the process Americans are using in adopting sustainability. A recent Harris poll found that 63 percent of those surveyed had purchased a higher efficiency CFL light bulb during the last year. Yet only 2 percent of cars sold are hybrids. The American consumer is in the process of making a transition through learning and experimentation toward a sustainable lifestyle.

This brings me full circle to the issue of greenwashing and the feedback that is surfacing from within my network of going-green businesses. Like their customers, America’s businesses are also moving along a path of learning, experimentation and then adoption. But many of these companies are not telling their customers because of fear that the dark-green leaders of sustainability will brand them for not doing enough. This fear is retarding the marketing connection between companies attempting to build a profit-proposition for going green and consumers that would buy from a less than dark-green company as part of their own path for going from light to darker green. Another telling lesson learned from the market research on Green Works is that a major reason why consumers did experiment with buying this green household product was because of Clorox’s credibility for selling effective household cleaners!

So what am I suggesting? What I am not suggesting is that our dark-green advocates back off. Holding all of our feet to the fire is a hugely important role if we have any hope of achieving a 350 world.

What I am suggesting is that businesses going green must overcome their greenwashing fears and connect with their customers. “Authenticity and trust are what customers are looking for,” explains Steven Addis and John Creson of Addis Creson , a company that contributed toward Kashi’s growth into a national brand. And what Addis and Creson suggest is that companies adopt “transparency” as a marketing path for telling their story.

The feedback I gave to my going green business friends that confided their greenwashing fears to me was that social media offered a them a path for establishing authenticity, trust and transparency. Cone Research just reported that over half of Americans use social media and 78 percent of them interact with companies or brands via new media sites and tools. In the The Secret Green Sauce I call this use of social media to enable a collaborative learning, experimentation and then procurement process “Know it, Embrace.” The use of social or new media through Web 2.0 tools is an emerging marketing best practice successfully being used by companies growing green revenues through an alignment strategy with customers searching for trustworthy, authentic green companies and products.

About Bill Roth

Bill Roth is the founder of Earth 2017, author of The Secret Green Sauce and a nationally-followed contributor to, Triple Pundit, The Green Economy Post and Media Post on best business practices emerging from the smart, healthy and green global economy. He coaches entrepreneurs, business and community leaders on how to grow revenues, profits and jobs by going smart and green.
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