Sneaky 'green' marketing: the world of greenwashing

How do you know product claims of eco-friendliness are true?

Greenwashing in action

Credit: Jamie Tuffrey

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Just like the fact that the healthiest slice of cake is the one you leave on the plate, the greenest product is the one you don't actually buy.

Buying stuff is a bit like eating - we do need to consume a certain amount just to live, but it is usually about we want rather than what we need. And let's face it, we don't need a double fudge chocolate sundae with whipped cream anymore than we need a plasma screen TV.

For the most part our purchases are driven by clever marketing. Marketers exploit ethical shopping sentiment when they use 'greenwash'.

The idea has become so all-pervasive in recent years that the word has even entered the Oxford English Dictionary which defines it as "disinformation disseminated by an organisation so as to present an environmentally responsible public image."

Of course, not all environmental claims are spurious.

North American environmental marketing company Terra Choice has helpfully analysed these PR techniques by surveying 1,018 consumer products, and examining the 1,753 environmental claims that accompanied them.

They classified the various eco statements on product packages and came up with the 'six sins of greenwashing': the sin of the hidden trade-off; the sin of no proof; the sin of vagueness; the sin of irrelvance; the sin of lesser of two evils; and the sin of fibbing.

Futerra, a British eco-marketing agency, consolidated this with advice for consumers about what they called the '10 signs of greenwashing'. The themes are similar and easily recognisable and the short version is, if something seems too good to be true, then it probably is.

The race to be green

The marketing industry has had a lot to catch up with. Until very recently it believed buyers didn't care about the environmental impact of their purchases, and extolling any incidental eco-virtue would only attract penniless hippies anyway.

But then the LOHAS demographic arrived (that's marketing-speak for Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability, see our story ).

Lohasians are an educated, relatively affluent segment of society, unafraid to put their money where their values are, and they have convinced manufacturers to start spruiking their clients' soft, compassionate side.

However, we are in the perplexing situation where the early adopters (that's marketing-speak for greenies from way back) are now thoroughly cynical about green claims, whilst many 'mainstream' shoppers are only just beginning to understand the need for greener products.

A new report by market researchers Mobium shows that 88 per cent of Australian consumers express scepticism and confusion about corporate declarations of eco-friendliness.

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