On a daily basis, all of us are bombarded by the claims eco-friendly, environmentally safe, biodegradable, CFC free, and on and on. If you're skeptical, you're not alone.
One study showed that while more than 80 percent of consumers are willing to buy "green," at least a third of them don't know how to evaluate the product claims, according to Thetford Corp., a large supplier of sanitation and refrigeration products for the marine, RV and heavy truck industries.
"Is it really green?" asks Nadine Burns, marketing manager for Thetford, which produces a line of green marine cleaning and deodorant products that are backed by credible third-party certifications. "Consumers want it to be green. There is a real desire on the part of consumers to be green. But there's so much skepticism. ... [Companies] will grab a globe from clip art and put it on their product and say it's green."
There is a term for these fuzzy environmental promises: greenwashing. "It's generally the deceptive use of green PR or marketing ... essentially spinning products as environmentally friendly" when they're not, says Elenor Ekman, marketing manager for Interlux, the large coatings manufacturer.
Both Ekman and Burns are working to educate consumers regarding product claims and to also curtail greenwashing.
Ekman says companies have a responsibility to clearly define what they mean by the environmental claims and logos they put on their products. She cited a survey showing seven out of 10 Americans regard these slogans and taglines as "just a marketing tactic and, therefore, to be mistrusted."
The downside of misrepresenting products and processes through empty marketing claims is a loss of credibility, she says. "It's going to confuse the consumer and make it more difficult to make the right buying decisions," Ekman says. "We're doing an injustice to our customers. They're much smarter than that, and we need to respect that."
Consumers who want to buy green should look for reputable third-party certifications and understand what they mean, Burns says. Thetford Marine, for instance, manufactures a line of five boat cleaning products that meet the Environmental Protection Agency's Design for the Environment (DfE) standard, which is tougher than what the U.S. agency sets for home cleaning products, Burns says. "We've done it the right way," she says. "We made that choice and that investment."
In addition to misleading advertising claims, cost and product performance are key factors affecting the acceptance of this new generation of products. Burns says research done by Thetford indicates 85 percent of consumers would pay the same or up to 10 percent more for green products. "We had to be cognizant of cost when we developed these products," says Burns, noting that Thetford has three full-time chemists on staff. "And we had to be very aware of the strength of the product. They had to perform. People don't want something watered-down called green."
Given current market conditions and the consumer trend toward more environmental responsibility, the temptation to greenwash shouldn't surprise anyone. Who isn't looking for an edge?
Ekman says companies have an obligation to act responsibly in everything from their internal practices to their marketing claims. She gives a couple of examples: avoid the contradiction of promoting your packaging as biodegradable when the product inside is anything but green, or spinning product changes as environmentally friendly when, in fact, they were driven by cost-cutting.
"We want to be very transparent with our actions and our information," says Ekman, citing parent company AkzoNobel's emphasis on integrating sustainability into its regular business practices.
Ekman also is realistic. With the bulk of the bottom paint produced by Interlux containing biocides designed to keep fouling at bay, no one is attempting to call the paint eco-friendly. But Ekman says the company does offer alternatives: one biocide-free coating and another that contains no copper.
"What we're trying to say is we can all make better choices about reducing our environmental footprint," she says.
Both Ekman and Burns emphasize that reducing a company's environmental footprint extends well beyond just what it puts into the marketplace. It starts internally with company policies and procedures.
"We should choose to be green by design," Ekman says, "and not luck."
That's just good business.
This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue.