Turning Green?

Eco-friendly marketing doesn't mean eco-friendly businesses or consumers


| February 2, 2006


Green is the new black. The image of the corporation as a faceless, heartless black hole is giving way to a happier, greener corporate image that cares about social responsibility. McDonald's has begun marketing some foods as healthy and eco-friendly. Nike has even tried to market itself as ' the industry's leader in improving factory conditions.' But how sincere is this metamorphosis? And how effective are these marketing campaigns in getting the consumer to 'go green'?

The answers may not be as hopeful as you think. Socially responsible marketing can easily lead to 'greenwashing,' where companies try to cover up environmental irresponsibility with ads espousing their environmentally responsible ways. General Motors is notorious for this tactic, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), especially in regards to their 'hybrid' cars. The UCS claims that many GM cars using hybrid technology are 'not hybrids,' and actually undermine the hybrid market by lowering fuel economy expectations.

Misleading advertising may be one reason why green marketing isn't as effective as it should be. Joel Makower, founder of the Green Business Network, identifies the problem as the '4/40 Gap,' where 40 percent of people claim they are interested in green products, but only 4 percent actually go out and buy them. Eco-friendly marketing can be effective in promoting companies, but it's not always effective in promoting environmental responsibility.

Makower's comments come in response to a report entitled 'Talk The Walk: Advancing Sustainable Lifestyles through Marketing and Communications' produced in part by the United Nations Environment Programme. The idea is to 'advance sustainable development,' and 'promote environmental responsibility under the UN Global Compact,' through the study of marketing strategies and consumer attitudes toward green products. (Check out the database of ads on the report's website, under 'Ads Studied.') According to the report, 'The key to overcoming barriers to sustainable consumption while making a profit definitely constitutes the Holy Grail for marketers, with potential for delivering double-digit growth for years to come.'

This approach, Makower says, is dubious. 'Talk the Walk' takes a 'green Trojan horse' tactic in marketing, where consumers are basically lulled into buying environmentally sound products. Makower describes this as trying to '[m]ake consumers be greener in spite of themselves.' Instead, he promotes a more 'holistic' way of green marketing, advocating a five-tiered approach of '[i]ncreasing consumer awareness and choice; promoting innovative policies; accelerating demand for greener products; demanding corporate accountability; and encouraging sustainable business practices.'

Go there >> Green Marketing and the '4/40 Gap'