Green claims come with big spin cycle

Sydney_morning_herald_logo_jpegOriginally posted March 3, 2008
by Julian Lee, Marketing Reporter; The Sydney Morning Herald

We have had green light
bulbs, green energy and green cars, so it was only a matter of time
before the green revolution trickled down to packaged goods. Today the
country’s leading laundry brand turns green, tomorrow it is a favourite
beer brand.

Unilever has introduced a range of concentrated laundry liquids; its
pitch is to environmentally conscious consumers who can wash their
underdaks safe in the knowledge that they are saving the planet.

But no sooner have the new Omo ads begun than the actual benefits to
the environment are being called into question. Unilever’s claims about
what is in effect exactly the same product add to a tussle about
whether big corporate images are being "greenwashed" at the expense of
legitimate products that have substantively addressed environmental
concerns.

Omo’s green claims could deliver it – and its price-fighting
stablemate, Surf – an even greater share of the $500 million laundry
detergent market. Omo is already the market leader in powder and the
number three brand in liquids behind Colgate-Pamolive’s Dynamo and Cold
Power.

#Omo’s packaging has shrunk from 1.4 litres to 475 millilitres but
the liquid in the bottle is three times more concentrated and will do
just as many washes. It clears the one big hurdle that prevents
consumers from buying green products: that the product’s performance
will somehow be compromised.

If all of us were to switch from the regular size to the new "Small
& Mighty" format – which uses 50 per cent less packaging – then the
equivalent of 11.8 million plastic bags and 6.5 million sheets of A4
paper a year would be saved and 62 per cent fewer trucks would be on
the road, says an analysis by an independent environmental consulting
firm paid by Unilever.

On the surface it seems that Unilever has struck marketing gold.
Small & Mighty’s launch three years ago in America and Europe
delivered the company a rise in sales, forcing other soap brands to go
for concentrated formulae, although not all with green claims in
attendance.

Demand in Australia for products that are kinder to the environment
is gaining strength; a quarter of adults are willing to buy products
and services that are more sustainable for the environment, are better
for themselves and benefit the community. Yet only about 8 per cent of
adults are actually following through with their actions, research by
the Mobium Group has found.

The arrival of mainstream products by the likes of Unilever and
tomorrow’s launch of a Green Cascade beer by Foster’s can only help to
close that gap.

But substantial doubts are being raised about Unilever’s strategy.

Justin Dowel is chief executive of the Melbourne company Nature’s
Organics, which has been selling laundry and household cleaning
products under the Earth Choice brand since 1982. At 4.2 per cent of
the liquid laundry market, Earth Choice is a tiddler to the Unilever,
Colgate Palmolive and PZ Cussons whales.

Mr Dowel accuses Unilever of green tokenism because it is converting
only its liquids into the new format when Australians favour powders
over liquids by a factor of five to one.

Omo has 19 per cent value share of the powder market. Powders are
much more damaging to the environment than liquids, which degrade more
easily. More than a third of washing powders are made up of sodium
carbonate, a salt compound, which once released into water systems in
effect salinates fresh water, thereby upsetting the balance of the
ecosystem. Other ingredients in washing powders come from
petrochemicals, which are derived from non-renewable fossil fuels.

Earth Choice products, along with other green products, such as the
Aware brand marketed by the environmental organisation Planet Ark, use
plant-based ingredients – made from palm or coconut oil – and contain
almost no phosphates, which are largely responsible for causing algae
bloom in water systems.

Planet Ark’s marketing manager, Anna Bowden, said of Omo’s move:
"Being concentrated does not make you environmentally friendly."

She says that in order to really make a difference Unilever must
change its powders. She said Omo’s liquid formula had not changed much,
a fact confirmed by Unilever, which says it will address the make-up of
powders but that is a time-consuming process and more complicated than
liquids.

Earth Choice’s Mr Dowel said Unilever should be using plant-based
ingredients in all its products; because it does not, the Small &
Mighty range amounts to little more than window dressing.

"If we can do it [use plant-based ingredients] then they surely can. They are just being greedy," he said.

Unilever is not widely credited with inventing modern consumer goods
marketing for nothing. Rather than opt for a vague message touting its
green credentials, which in all likelihood would prompt an
investigation by the competition watchdog, Unilever has opted to put
out a very specific and simple message.

"There is a very logical extension to using less packaging. There
are less trucks on the road and less paper being used," said a Unilever
spokesman, Nick Goddard. "That is very easy to understand. Once you
start talking about a raft of [other] benefits then frankly people get
a bit confused."

Unilever has also seen how the Australian Consumer and Competition
Commission has clamped down on companies such as Saab, Energy
Australia, Origin Energy and Woolworths among many others for making
allegedly unsubstantiated green claims in their marketing. Broad claims
are particularly problematic as they are difficult to back up, the
commission said in its recent guidance on green marketing.

When so many companies are using generic claims to obtain a green
tinge, Jeff Angel, of the Total Environment Centre, which regularly and
proudly dobs greenwashers in to the commission, broadly welcomed
Unilever’s move: "It’s good that the claims are specific as opposed to
the easily misused terms which can get some companies into trouble.
Certainly less packaging is an important matter than companies can
directly influence." But he added that he was unclear how easily the
new bottles could be recycled, as the sleeves were unrecyclable. "They
were a bit vague on that."

So confident is Unilever in the specificity of its claims that it is
now pointing to the marketing of some of its competitors as examples of
alleged greenwash.

"Claims in the [laundry] category, such as ‘Wash your Carbon
Footprint’, only serve to further confuse consumers and risks
discrediting legitimate, defined and verified claims," said Mr Goddard,
referring to a recent promotion by Colgate-Palmolive’s "green"
Hurricane washing powder that promised the environmental organisation
Landcare will plant a tree for every three Hurricane products bought.

Unilever has even paid the environmental movement’s poster girl, Tanya Ha, to spruik the product.

In much the same way the environmental warrior and founder of Planet
Ark, Jon Dee, will lend his credibility to Foster’s tomorrow when he
hosts a panel discussion at the launch of Cascade Green.

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