As green gets attention, marketing ramps up

Statesmancom_jpegOriginally posted Jan. 4, 2008
by Asher Price, statesman.com

Washington to step in for guidelines on green marketing

How many advertising execs does it take to screw in a compact fluorescent light bulb?
          

So many, it seems, that Washington has decided to take a look at how Madison Avenue markets eco-friendly products.
            

In the background of a series of reviews starting next week by the
Federal Trade Commission of "green marketing" claims is a phenomenon
environmentalists call greenwashing, or inflating environmental
initiatives to deflect criticism about environmentally destructive
practices.

From Austin to New York, ad agencies are expanding their offices as they advise their clients to tell a green story.
            
         

"A lot of major PR companies are scrambling to create new
environmental divisions," said Kevin Tuerff, a principal of the Austin
public relations firm EnviroMedia Social Marketing.

In September, for example, St. Louis-based marketing company
Fleishman-Hillard International Communications Ltd. launched its
Sustainability Communications practice. The division is designed to
help clients "articulate views and actions on critical resource
management issues, such as fossil fuel consumption, water conservation
and CO2 emissions," according to a news release. 
         

Locally, Austin advertising agency GSD&M’s Idea City, which
recently laid off more than 100 employees, is considering building a
green division, spokeswoman Melanie Mahaffey said.

It makes financial sense for firms to promote their green-focused
business offerings. The 19 percent of the population that "push the
market in terms of green products" tend to be better-educated and
wealthier than the rest, said Ted Ning, director of the Colorado-based
nonprofit Lohas, which stands for Lifestyles of Health and
Sustainability. 
         

But ad executives say the message needs to be authentic to work. "If
done poorly or derisively — if it’s seen as a car going through a field
— people will scoff at it; they’ll say it’s just greenwashing or
windowdressing," said Jay Suhr, who directs the crafting of marketing
messages at Austin advertising firm T3.

With a lack of national standards for green building or carbon
offsets — planting trees or installing solar panels to compensate for
carbon dioxide emissions — businesses, and the ad agencies they employ,
have enjoyed a lot of latitude in their marketing efforts. 
         

"As the opportunity to profit in this sector attracts more players,
the potential for marketing claims to misleadingly portray the offset
products in question also grows," U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass.,
wrote in July to the Federal Trade Commission’s chairwoman.

The trade commission will revise its green marketing guidelines
based on discussions from this year’s workshops. The guidelines were
last revised in the late 1990s. 
         

A report in the fall by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing found in
a study of 1,018 green products that all but one were marketed with
false or misleading claims.

In Texas, companies large and small have touted their environmental
bona fides, even as they’ve faced accusations about their environmental
performance. A northern Hays County rock quarry that its neighbors have
said is a source of noise and pollution has formed a partnership with
the Wildlife Habitat Council to build bat habitats on its land, uproot
invasive plants and set aside open land. 
         

"This will be an on-site lab for teachers and students to study
geography, birds and bats," Jill Shackleford, who operates the quarry,
said during a tour in September.

Meanwhile, a November report by the United Steelworkers accused
DuPont, which has plants in Texas, of using green marketing to cover
its industrial activities. 
         

"DuPont is skillful in giving the public the impression it truly is
concerned and engaging in activities to create a ‘better, safer,
healthier planet,’ but when its profit motive collides with the
environment, profit usually wins out," the report said.

DuPont said in a statement that "what is good for business must also
be good for the environment and for people everywhere," saying it had
invested millions in energy efficiency measures at its Texas plants.   

Companies trying to protect the environment, even if they’re in the
business of extracting the earth’s natural resources, should not always
be written off as simply looking for good press, some environmentalists
say.

Auden Schendler, the executive director of community and
environmental responsibility for Aspen Skiing Co., wrote in 2006 in the
online environmental journal Grist that "If firms are afraid to hype
their good environmental projects because they fear being labeled
greenwashers, nothing will change." 
         

 

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