While the 1970s was the decade of growing environmental awareness, the 1980s was the decade of environmental disasters, with the disclosure of hazards such as acid rain, global warming and ozone depletion. In addition, incidents such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the release of toxic gases by a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal and the nuclear accident at Chernobyl spurred consumer concern.
As support for environmentalism spread, U.S. and West European consumers expressed increasing concern about the environmental impact of their purchases and a willingness to pay the price for environmentally responsible products. In turn, consumer boycotts based on ecological concerns had an economic impact.
In the U.S., for example, fast-food establishments were boycotted because of their use of styrene packaging materials and in Western Europe, boycotts targeted aerosols containing chloroflourocarbons and bleached paper products. In Germany, the Green Party became more prominent, and environmental legislation was passed that was widely recognized as the strictest in the world.
Advent of "green advertising"
As environmentalism became a core value for consumers—and consequently an economic and political force—advertisers responded by focusing on environmental issues. "Green advertising"—promotional messages appealing to environmentally aware consumers—first appeared in the 1970s.
Many early ads incorporated images and figures calculated to make an emotional appeal to consumers. One of the best known ads from this period is the 1971 public service announcement for Keep America Beautiful, featuring Iron Eyes Cody, an American Indian, on horseback, a tear rolling down his cheek as he surveys scenes of environmental degradation.
In the 1980s, green advertising linked corporate identity with social causes—in this case the environment-to create a green company image. Anita Roddick, founder of Body Shop International, was awarded the Order of the British Empire for her well-publicized efforts to manufacture environmentally sound personal-care products that involved no animal testing.
Also around this time, Chevron Corp. began its "People Do" campaign using case studies to demonstrate Chevron's commitment to environmental projects. H.J. Heinz Corp., responding to a consumer boycott of tuna, worked with the Earth Island Institute to introduce "dolphin-safe" tuna (i.e., tuna caught in nets that did not harm dolphins).
Ups and downs of green appeal
Early results confirmed the success of environmental image marketing. Evaluation of the "People Do" campaign a few years after its inception demonstrated a 22% increase in likely purchase behavior among the target audience. Heinz's share of the canned tuna market rose to a record-high 40% following the introduction of dolphin-safe tuna.
Green advertising peaked in 1990 with tie-ins to the 20th anniversary of Earth Day by many major corporations, including IBM Corp., General Motors Corp. and Adolph Coors Co. Small agencies specializing in green advertising, such as MediaNatura, emerged, and major agencies, such as Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising and J. Walter Thompson Co., formed specialized green teams.
By the mid-1990s, however, green marketing started to slump. Two factors contributed to the drop: consumer backlash and increasing government regulation. Polls demonstrated that the vast majority of consumers considered ads by major corporations to be the least credible source of environmental information. Green consumers were also those most likely to inherently distrust big business, and those consumers believed that environmental claims were too hard to test or prove, were deceptively vague or omitted factual information that was not supportive of environmental claims.
Articles appeared in the popular press accusing companies and organizations of "greenwashing" (the environmental equivalent of whitewashing) or producing "ecopornography." It was charging that Body Shop products were not as environmentally sound as had been advertised. Critics also noted that the environmental actions outlined by Chevron in its "People Do" campaign were simply technological fixes required by government regulation, such as compliance with the Endangered Species Act, and not independent, company-initiated actions to reduce energy consumption and pollution.
In the early 1990s, a new kind of green ad—featuring rational appeals, environmental facts and channels for consumer information, such as toll-free numbers—began to predominate. Procter & Gamble Co. advertised its refillable Enviro-pak containers and bottles made with less plastic, and McDonald's advertising sought to educate the public about ways in which polystyrene was being recycled
With these new environmental claims on the part of advertisers, public opinion swung in favor of government regulation of those claims. Although the U.S. Federal Trade Commission had investigated environmental claims cases as early as the 1970s, court cases involving environmental ads did not become common until 1990, when attorneys general from seven states charged Mobil with misleading advertising for claiming its Hefty brand trash bags were biodegradable when in fact conditions in most landfills would not allow the bags to biodegrade.
Advertising for American Enviro Products' Bunnies diapers suffered a similar fate. P&G was charged with misleading advertising for saying that the packaging for many of its products was recyclable when in fact few recycling facilities existed at the time that could handle the material.
Some U.S. states, California and New York among them, passed their own laws governing green claims. In the absence of clear federal regulatory guidelines, however, many advertisers were unsure of the regulations surrounding green marketing.
In 1990, confusion over the legal status of green claims prompted the 10 members of the Attorneys General Task Force on Environmental Marketing, chaired by Minnesota Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III, to issue the Green Report, followed by the Green Report II in 1991.
The reports made four recommendations for responsible environmental advertising:
- Environmental claims should be specific, not vague.
- They should reflect current waste management options.
- They should be substantive.
- They should be supported by scientific evidence.
The National Association of Attorneys General adopted a resolution calling for national environmental marketing standards. In February 1991, they, along with a broad coalition of consumer, business and environmental groups and industry associations, including the American Association of Advertising Agencies, petitioned the Federal Trade Commission for guidelines. In response, the FTC held public hearings on the issue in July 1991.
One year later, the FTC, in cooperation with the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs, issued "Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims." These guidelines, which do not have the force of law, set down six general principles: (1) all qualifications and disclosures must be clear and prominent; (2) claims must distinguish between environmental benefits due to the product and those due to the packaging; (3) claims cannot overstate environmental benefits or attributes; (4) comparative claims must give enough information that the basis for comparison is clear; (5) claims must be specific, not vague; and (6) terms used in claims must conform to standard definitions (definitional criteria were set for 10 terms: degradable, biodegradable, photodegradable, compostable, recyclable, recycled content, source reduction, refillable, ozone safe and ozone friendly).
Since then, cases against advertisers have proliferated, the majority being brought in reference to claims of ozone friendliness and degradability. Claims for aerosols (particularly personal-care items) and plastics (particularly trash bags) have been the most heavily scrutinized, although disposable diapers, coffee filters and disposable food-service items have each been targeted more than once.
Within this uncertain legal atmosphere, many companies severely restricted their environmental marketing activities. Kraft Foods, General Foods Corp., Heinz and Andrew Jergens Co. pulled claims of recyclability from their labels. P&G struck the phrase "recyclable where facilities exist" from its packaging and, along with Coca-Cola Co., eliminated its environmental marketing position.
In the U.S., various private goups have initiated certification programs for products that meet their environmental standards; few have met with strong advertiser support.