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Don't Let Skepticism Stifle Green Marketing

5 Steps for Gaining Consumer Trust Despite Greenwashing Fears

By Published on . 3

Ask businesses why they don't tout green achievements more often, and their answer will likely be fear of greenwash. Before you let such fears deter you from making investments in sustainable technology or promoting your green achievements, consider how difficult it is for any advertiser to gain consumer trust.

Consumers have always been skeptical of advertising. Take the food industry, for example. Food brands have long been under government scrutiny for their advertising claims. Today, companies are getting smeared for overpromising health benefits, leaving consumers confused about what's actually true. But we don't call that "food wash."

As I write in my new book, "The New Rules of Green Marketing," skepticism is so rampant in all industries that consumers trust each other more than they trust brands, ads and media messages in general. That's one reason social media is soaring right now.

Skepticism is par for the course. Besides, a little skepticism is good -- it keeps us on our toes. The now "Wild West" green marketplace will mature. But as is the case for many established industries, the potential to screw up will always be there.

So, proceed with caution. But for the sake of the planet and your business, do proceed. The following strategies will help you avoid greenwash and gain competitive advantage in the process:

1. Walk your talk.

Thwart the most discriminating of critics by visibly making progress toward measurable goals. Being proactive in responding to the public's concerns and expectations starts with a visible and committed CEO. That's because CEOs can create an emotional link between the company and its customers. Empower your employees, too. Educate them on environmental issues and the specifics of their company's processes so they can fuel authentic communications about your company's green initiatives.

2. Be transparent.

Provide access to details about your products and corporate practices, and continuously report on your progress. In the future, disclosure of environmental impacts may be required by law. Get a jump on competitors and regulators -- and score some points with consumers -- by voluntarily disclosing as much as possible. During this process, don't hide bad news. Acknowledge your weaknesses and explain how you're proactively trying to improve.

3. Don't mislead.

Be specific, prominent and comprehensive so as not to confuse. Consumers may claim to know what commonly used terms such as "recyclable" and "biodegradable" mean, but they can be easily mistaken -- creating risk for unsuspecting sustainable marketers.

The best advice for green marketers is to adopt specific standards for disclosure of green initiatives and to follow the FTC Green Guides or other appropriate government guidelines. If possible, consult with lawyers who specifically address green claims.

4. Enlist the support of third parties.

Let stakeholders in on the steps you're taking, and educate the public on how they can help. You can also align positively with third parties that perform independent life-cycle inventories, certify claims and award eco-seals. Certifying your product under appropriate eco-labels lends credibility to environmental messages. When choosing eco-labels, be sure to choose wisely based on how relevant the label is to your brand image. If your product has multiple eco-labels, make sure the standards for each do not conflict with one another.

5. Promote responsible consumption.

It's one thing to design a product to be greener, but you can't minimize impact throughout the total product life cycle unless consumers eventually use and dispose of your product more responsibly. Enlisting consumer support for responsible consumption is a sure-fire way to build credibility and reduce risk. Products can be designed to make it easier for consumers to minimize resource use. In turn, people will appreciate your efforts to make responsible consumption more manageable.

More information about this topic is available from my "Moving Sustainability Forward" green paper.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jacquelyn Ottman is an adviser on green marketing to Fortune 500 companies and the U.S. government. She is the author of four books on green marketing, including the recently released "The New Rules of Green Marketing: Strategies, Tools and Inspiration for Sustainable Branding" (Berrett-Koehler, 2011).

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