Marketers, Not Consumers, Need Environmental Education

'Greenwashing' Has Made It Hard to Know What to Believe

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Al Gore is in the process of wasting a lot of green on a campaign designed to raise awareness of the climate crisis. Why "waste"? Because consumers are already aware of the issue, and many of them are already trying to do something about it. Not by talking to politicians, but by forcing change through their most powerful tool -- their buying habits.

There are dozens of surveys to prove it. I like the "2008 BBMG Conscious Consumer Report" partly because it's based on a broad sample of 2,007 consumers and partly because, unlike many of the others, it measures what people say against what they actually do. For example, while BBMG found that 86% of consumers identify themselves as "environmentally friendly," it also found that in practice, only one in five consumers "always" buys based on social or environmental concerns, a smaller proportion than those who said they do.

The BBMG survey also takes a broad look at what makes consumers buy certain products. Unsurprisingly, quality and price are Americans' top concerns. But consumers now claim that attributes such as where a product is made (44% said this was very important) and how energy efficient it is (41% very important) are more important than convenience (34%). "Made from recycled materials," "all natural," "locally grown," "company donates to money or causes I care about," all scored higher than "brand," in the consumer's view.

A large and growing number of consumers want to buy more environmentally friendly products from greener-acting companies. Of course, most Ad Age readers know that. That's why I get dozens of e-mails every week from agencies that have set up "green" units, magazines that are promoting green issues (my favorite being an effort from the kerosene kids at Delta Air Lines) and brands launching campaigns touting green credentials or causes.

With the deluge of marketing claims, the problem for consumers isn't awareness so much as knowing which products and corporations they can believe. In a world in which oil companies claim they're green, it's not surprising that consumers are growing more skeptical of such claims.

The FTC is finally trying to do something about this, stepping into the greenwashing debate for the first time since it published its actually-rather-useful "Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims" in 1992. The agency held a green-marketing workshop earlier this year, aimed mainly at asking whether it's possible to quantify things such as carbon neutrality, and it's set to hold another April 30. It may follow these workshops by updating its guidelines.

Very few agencies, marketers or media owners attended the first workshop, and only a few more are slated to be at the second one.

The 4A's, ANA and AAF are being represented at the hearings by Ronald Urbach of law firm Davis & Gilbert. What does he think is at stake here? "If the guidelines are too stringent, it can crush [green] product innovation," he said. "And if consumers aren't getting it and are left confused by what all the different terms and messages mean, regulation could happen."

The point is that the marketing world needs to educate itself in the basics of environmentalism. There are now hundreds of people who say they can market my green product -- but few who could tell me if buying carbon offsets will allow me to legitimately claim carbon neutrality, or whether that 30%-less-plastic water bottle is actually an "eco bottle."

Put another way: Does the marketing world care enough to actually know what it's talking about, or just enough to hang out a recycled shingle and make a quick buck? At the moment, it still looks a lot like the latter.
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