The Federal Trade Commission recently proposed changes to its “Green Guides,” which provide a road map for companies making claims to sell environmentally friendly products. That includes everything from the criteria for saying you use renewable materials to the use of product certifications.
But those guidelines may not be enough to help companies selling green products avoid being seen by skeptical consumers as just another greenwasher making hyped-up, dubious marketing claims. It’s a problem that involves more than just potential customers, but includes everyone from investors to the media. “There are a great many stakeholders you need to worry about,” says Darrin Duber-Smith, president of Green Marketing, a Nederland, Colorado consulting firm, and a long-time expert in the area of sustainability. One notable example: Wal-Mart recently put in place new directives detailing green requirements for all its suppliers.
How can you ensure the public recognizes the legitimacy of your green marketing efforts? Consider these steps:
Do a sustainability audit.
Perhaps the most convincing move is to conduct a review of all the products and processes in your organization, from the amount of waste you produce to how much water you use and the level of fuel needed to deliver your product, and then, develop a plan with measurable objectives for improvement. As important, put it all prominently on your website. “This is the type of information that lends authenticity to environmental claims,” says Duber-Smith. “Authenticity comes from full transparency.”
He points to a small printing company that recently hired him to evaluate its processes and, as a result, switched to a different coating system using non-toxic ingredients and changed the type of containers it used for distribution, among other steps. It also put the information on its website. Consequently, not only was the firm able to prove its green bonafides and make necessary improvements, but it also started more vigorously targeting customers interested in the environmental soundness of its paper.
While it’s best to hire an expert to do the job—there literally are hundreds of areas to evaluate-- you can also try conducting an audit on your own. One approach is to use guidelines from the Global Reporting Initiative, an Amsterdam-based organization with a widely used sustainability reporting framework.
Don’t rely on seals of approval.
There’s a plethora of labels from a variety of organizations purporting to attest to a product’s green legitimacy. But, according to Duber-Smith, few of them mean anything. While there are government standards, for example, for certifying something is organic, most other claims aren’t regulated. With so many labels out there, it’s likely the one you use will just confuse—or alienate—potential customers. “There’s no magic bullet,” he says.
Research your supply chain.
If you’re really serious about being green, you need to recognize you don’t operate in a vacuum. That means considering the practices of your suppliers. While that’s not always feasible and, in fact, can involve a lot of work, it’s worth the effort. “You’re only as green as your supply chain,” says Duber-Smith.
Understand the nuances of your target market.Not all consumers interested in buying green are alike. For that reason, you also need to shape your marketing efforts to the type of environmentally aware customer you’re targeting. For example, of those consumers who want to purchase green products, some are interested largely in the impact on personal health, while others are focused primarily on the environmental repercussions, according to Duber-Smith. “These segments have different attitudes, needs and motivations,” he says.