The green rush: BS or the real deal?

Greening your business can be a golden opportunity, and environmental opportunists have begun to swarm. The result: an overcrowded and unstable green marketplace where the line between ethics and exploitation is blurred. Are companies staking a real claim, or just peddling fool's gold?

Greening your business can be a golden opportunity, and environmental opportunists have begun to swarm. The result: an overcrowded and unstable green marketplace where the line between ethics and exploitation is blurred. Are companies staking a real claim, or just peddling fool’s gold?

There’s nothing wrong with jumping on the green bandwagon; the economic benefits of green marketing drive interest in environmental initiatives. The problem lies in legitimacy. The search for gold was motivated by profit, but some staking a claim in the ‘green rush’ say their motivation is a social conscience. In some cases this rings hollow, leaving customers confused and resentful.

In the age of information, public criticism travels far, and corporate image can have a serious effect on the bottom line. Companies do not want to get caught with their proverbial pants down. Instead, they are streaking through the crowd shouting: ‘Check out this sustainable action!’ and hoping it will be distracting enough that we won’t see their shady underbits. ‘Policies of Transparency’ have become increasingly popular. ‘Challenges’ are being positioned beside ‘successes,’ in an attempt to undercut the impact of oil spills with the installation of wind farms.

When you start to dig into these claims, you may feel as though you’ve hit the mother lode of corporate BS. Santa Fe Natural Tobacco company claims that they are ‘stewards of the earth,’ though they are required by law to warn the world of the devastating health effects their products have. Dow Chemical, which brought us DDT, Agent Orange, napalm and the Bhopal disaster, are ‘building their company’s rich legacy of leadership in solving the world’s most pressing problems with a spirit of fearless accountability.’ And the US Climate Action Partnership displays a roster of some of the biggest players leaving environmental foot craters all over the planet.

This is not to suggest that these efforts aren’t worthwhile, just that the net worth may not be the daisies and sunshine that marketing campaigns would have you believe. That’s the paradox green marketing faces – a constant tug of war between recognizing and encouraging legitimate efforts and the imprint a company’s actions actually have on the Earth.

Take British Petroleum. A strange juxtaposition materializes when Big Oil positions itself as a leader in the charge towards a sustainable future. The company has invested in marketing itself as the green oil choice. It successfully aligned with reputable environmental organizations, and in 2005 and 2006 was listed on the Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations in the World, becoming a vocal supplier of renewable energy. At the same time, however, BP also made the Multinational Monitor’s top 10 worst companies in light of an explosion at its Texas refinery that killed 15 employees, and an oil spill in Alaska. A commitment to sustainability becomes a tough sell when a company has a negative impact on the Earth.

There are also companies making a real connection with sustainable action. Take Interface’s CEO Ray Anderson who, after becoming convinced that he was a major contributor to the misappropriation of Earth’s resources, overhauled the way his company is run at all levels. This goes well beyond a monetary investment; it involved a complete conscientious buy-in. In turn, it inspired action internationally. The Interface story is rare in that the turn wasn’t due to public criticism, and was led by the individual able to drive change.

Each company has different challenges and resources; it is important that an environmental strategy integrates both, and that there are tangible goals, not just arbitrary (however clever) messages. Each should be interfaced with a plan that leads to measurable positive impact. Because these are claims of conscience, it’s important that the actions are substantial and sustainable. Sustainability is not only the new name of the game, it’s the gold standard for identifying legitimate claims.

A well-conceived environmental marketing strategy will involve changes in operational efficiency, real consumer participation and education, exploration and introduction of new technologies and changes in corporate culture at an employee level. The results should show visible changes in consumer behaviors, not just minds. The trail to sustainable action requires the right guide. If your claim falls short, you’ll lose customer trust, and be left with fool’s gold.

Ian Morton is founder and CEO of the Summerhill Group, which develops programs that move the market toward better choices for consumers and the environment. www.summerhillgroup.ca.