Not as green as they claim to be

Bostoncom_jpegThis Boston.com article provides an excellent summary of some of the recent trends and concerns in green marketing.  There is a tension between consumers who want to buy green without sacrificing lifestyle or image and marketers who want to provide products that are more about lifestyle and the status quo than they are about green.

Posted May 14, 2008
By Beth Daley, Boston.com

Just how green should you feel driving the new Chevy Tahoe hybrid sport utility vehicle?

Pitch_vs_reality_jpegThe eight-passenger vehicle is plastered with "hybrid" labels. An
automobile magazine panel that included the executive director of The
Sierra Club named it the "Green Car of the Year."

But the Tahoe gets only about 20 miles per gallon  – not much better than the nonhybrid
Honda
Pilot SUV, which also seats eight. The celebrated Toyota
Prius gets around 46 miles per gallon.

"How
a 6,000-pound behemoth can be the green car of the year is beyond me,"
said David Champion, director of Consumer Reports Auto Test Division.
"It’s a marketing exercise rather than reality."

As the world
goes eco-friendly – even eco-vodka is coming to martini bars – it’s not
clear how much environmental good will come from all the green products
consumers are buying. Companies regularly tout something as green when
it is not even good for the environment – it might just be less harmful
than a competitor’s product or than one the company sold previously.

Few
companies out and out lie, but they often use vague terms with no
defined meaning, such as "earth friendly," or tout an environmental
benefit while leaving out the environmental harm their product can
cause.

Consumers in the United States are expected to double
their spending on green products and services in the next year to an
estimated $500 billion, according to an annual consumer survey by
Landor Associates. Turn on the television or walk down any store aisle,
and it’s impossible to escape products and services being sold as
greener: potato chips, household cleaners, garage doors – even trash
hauling.

One marketing consultant calls the phenomenon "shop for
salvation." It began in earnest with rising public concern about global
warming, though marketers now also highlight other environmental
benefits. Still, green buying won’t come close to cutting emissions 50
percent worldwide, the amount that the leading scientific authority on
global warming says will be needed by 2050 to avert the worst
consequences.

Marketers, some environmentalists and marketing
specialists say, are merely tapping into people’s desire to feel like
they’re saving the earth – but not sacrificing their lifestyle.

"That’s
the paradox," said Frederic Brunel, associate professor of marketing at
Boston University. "Most people agree green solutions are better than
less green solutions, but how green? You could have the green McMansion
with energy efficiency, but well, the house is still 6,000 square feet.
. . . We need goals and standards."

The marketing of faux green products is now so widespread that there is a term for the practice  – "greenwashing."

Few
products have raised more objections than Nestlé’s new single-use
"eco-shape" water bottle. The bottle, which uses 30 percent less
plastic than similar products, is touted by Nestlé-owned Poland Spring
as "doing our part."

But eco-bloggers say there is no need for bottles at all. They say
the energy that goes into creating and transporting the bottles is
wasteful and most recyclable bottles end up in landfills. Taking water
can also draw down local water tables. Drink tap water, they urge.

A
Nestlé Waters North America spokeswoman said bottled water is healthier
than other bottled beverages. The company studied the life cycle of the
water bottle and found the best way to reduce carbon emissions was to
reduce the amount of plastic, said Jane Lazgin, director of corporate
communications.

Another example: Simple Green, the popular
household cleaner that bills itself as nontoxic and the "safer
alternative" to other cleaners. But one of Simple Green’s key
ingredients, butyl cellosolve, is the same toxic solvent found in some
traditional all-purpose cleaners. The label even cautions users not to
"dispose of . . . near storm drains, oceans, lakes or streams."

A
Simple Green spokeswoman said the company stands behind its claim that
the product is nontoxic, but acknowledged it does contain trace amounts
of the solvent. She said the company is launching an all-natural brand
of household cleaners to respond to consumer desires.

The Federal
Trade Commission, which has the authority to investigate false
marketing claims, says the increasing use of environmental marketing
has prompted the agency to move up a review of its "green guides,"
which outline general principles and definitions of environmental
claims. Some terms, such as "sustainable" and "carbon offset," weren’t
widely used the last time the guides were updated, in 1998.

The
agency has not issued any decisions about green marketing in the past
five years, a spokesman said, and he was unable to say how many
complaints about the topic the FTC has received in recent years.

There
is virtually "zero enforcement," said Scot Case of TerraChoice
Environmental Marketing, a consulting company based in Philadelphia and
Ottawa. Last year, his company conducted a study that found that 99
percent of 1,018 green advertising claims of everyday consumer products
could be misleading. The products were not identified, but the report
did highlight examples, such as shampoos claiming to be "certified
organic" on their label, though TerraChoice could find no organic
standard for shampoo, or garden insecticides being promoted as
"chemical-free," though even water can be considered a chemical.

The
government "needs to require anyone making a green claim to provide
proof of the accuracy and relevance of the claim," Case said.

Some
countries are taking more aggressive action. Last year, the British
Advertising Standards Authority, an independent watchdog and regulating
agency, told Shell to pull magazine ads in that country that showed
flowers coming out of smokestacks, because the images suggested the
company was using most of its carbon dioxide emissions to grow flowers,
when that was not true. The board also told Lexus to pull an ad that
boasted an SUV was "High Performance. Low Emissions. Zero Guilt," in
part because the spot erroneously indicated that the car had little or
no impact on the environment. A report the British group last month
said the number of complaints about environmental ads increased almost
fivefold in the past year to 561.

Many customers, however, seem all too happy to trust companies’
claims. According to a survey released this year by the Boston College
Center for Corporate Citizenship and Cone LLC, a Boston-based brand
strategy firm, about 47 percent of respondents said they trusted
companies to tell them the truth in environmental messaging, and 45
percent said they believed companies are accurately communicating
information about their impact on the environment.

Yet
marketing specialists say companies can mislead consumers in many ways
– including by selectively using information. Last year, Gianfranco
Zaccai, president and CEO of the innovation and design consulting firm
Continuum, headquartered in West Newton, was called to task by two
popular environmental blogs, treehugger.com and inhabitat.com.
Zaccai, whose company helped develop the Swiffer, wrote a BusinessWeek
column praising the cleaning instrument, which uses disposable sheets.
Zaccai said the Swiffer is a sustainable product in part because it
allows people to stop using a mop and wasting millions of gallons of
water. But the blogs said he was a bit disingenuous: He didn’t discuss
the disposable, chemical-laden sheets that would be thrown into
landfills.

Later, in a question-and-answer piece  on inhabitat.com,
Zaccai wrote that he believed the Swiffer is still the best
environmental choice. "Of course, the Swiffer has some environmental
impact," he said. "That single sheet of paper goes into the trash."

As
for the Tahoe hybrid, Don Butler, executive director for truck
marketing for Chevrolet, said the vehicle is for people who are going
to buy plus-size SUVs anyway. But now, he said, they have an option to
get much better gas mileage – on par with the Toyota Camry.

"It’s
not like this is the one silver bullet," Butler said. The company is
working on many other energy-efficient vehicles, he added.

Ron Cogan, president and CEO of Green Car Journal and greencar.com,
which declared the Tahoe the Green Car of the Year, said the vehicle
was chosen in part because the technology the company used would have
reverberations throughout the industry. Carl Pope, executive director
of The Sierra Club, said he deplores the fact that so many people drive
SUVs, but voted for the Tahoe because it was a "category changer."

For others, however, the idea that a large SUV could ever be considered green is unfathomable.

"I
know how this goes. The manufacturers say, ‘We know, we know, but the
consumer wants it,’ " said Timothy Gutowski, a professor of mechanical
engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "But I say, where
is the adult here? This is a lot of feel good stuff."

Beth Daley can be reached at [email protected].

No Responses to “Not as green as they claim to be”

  1. I can understand why Beth Daley would question why the Sierra Club named the Chevy Tahoe, which gets only 20 mpg, a “green car of the year?” If she dug a little deeper, she would know the answer.
    Light trucks (pick-ups) and SUV’s consume 70% of the ground transportation fuels used in America. Compacts and sub-compacts consume only about 6% of ground fuel in America. (The rest is mid/large cars and big trucks). Almost half the vehicles bought by consumers in America are pick-up trucks!
    Increasing the fuel economy of Tahoes and vehicles like them 30-40% would reduce American fuel consumption by almost 20-30%.. more than all compact, sub-compact, mid-size and large cars use combined in total. It’s our biggest leverage. It’s what GM should be doing.
    Of course many people buy cars and trucks that are way bigger and more powerful than they need… but $4.50 a gallon gas (what I paid yesterday) will punish them hard … I mean take care of that.

  2. I do not know why the results of the Cone LLC survey showing 47 percent of respondents trusting companies to tell them the truth in environmental messaging, and 45 percent believing companies’ information about their impact on the environment is considered an indication of consumer “trust”.
    What about the other half of the population? Presumably they do not believe the claims. Imagine if half of an airline’s customers did not believe its safety claims.
    One of out two people not believing you does not mean you are “trusted”.

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