COMMENTARY: Brands that cry green

Posted: 11 May 2012

Author: Elly Woolston

Apple has joined an exclusive club. Among its members are BP, Chevron and British Airways all of whom are anxious to promote their green credentials. But says marketing expert, Elly Wooston, not all companies are as green as they would like us to believe.

Apple is only the latest big corporate player to come within the range of environmental watchdogs, in this case, Greenpeace, which recently released a report entitled ‘How clean is my iCloud?’ This highlighted concerns about the use of coal to fuel the company’s data storage centre for the Silicon Valley giants’ new iCloud service. Apple has quickly leapt to the defence of its latest venture stating categorically that the technology they use will make the centre “the greenest data centre ever built”. The speed with which Apple responded only served to demonstrate the importance that many brands place on clearly projecting their green policies.

Apple coal train
Apple logos on a train carrying mountaintop removal mined coal.
Photo © Greenpeace

It would, of course, be unfair to single out Apple as the only brand targeted by Greenpeace; for a start Amazon and Microsoft have also come within their sights. More and more consumers expect green credentials to take root at the heart of the brands they buy and, as a result, brands have been acutely aware of the premium that people are willing to pay for an environmentally-friendly product.

But while some companies , such as the Interface carpet company, do lead belief-driven green campaigns, ensuring that they are operating as green as possible at every level, many tap into all the benefits of appearing green without decreasing the damage they cause to the environment. All this may seem an easy way to attract customers but avoid the costs involved in curtailing environmentally destructive practices: a smokescreen that savvy consumers are likely to see through.

Greenwashing

Too many companies devote large sections of their websites to promoting environmental work, which merely consists of feeble measures such as excessive use of the colour green and pictures of trees. Others provide in-depth coverage to the small amount of green activity they undertake, the more damaging behaviour isn’t mentioned.

The term ‘Greenwashing’ still rings true even if Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has fallen down the pecking order of many organisations. BP and its ‘Beyond Petroleum’ campaign remains a pertinent reminder of the folly of pouring money into a green message while showing scant regard for the environment. Naturally, this hasn’t prevented BP becoming the official ‘sustainability partner’ of the London Olympic Games.

BP olympics sponsorship
An archery student at the London 2012 Olympic Games sponsorship event at the British Museum . Photo: BP

Most of the time people can see through this facade and the greater the hypocrisy, the more a company suffers. The London Olympics is coming under growing scrutiny and heading for a potentially embarrassing climb down after pitching itself as a sustainable Games but failing to truly deliver. And that’s not just because of the tie-up with BP. Another sponsor Dow Chemical will provide a £7m decorative wrap for the Olympic Games when the company’s history, albeit through mergers, is rooted in the 1984 gas disaster in Bhopal, India.

Meanwhile, the US department store Walmart is struggling to shake off criticism, in a report released on Earth Day, of its CO2 emissions, which is rooted in the level of waste said to be involved in the sale of low quality, rapidly perishable, goods and the sheer size of its stores. This comes despite establishing supplier scorecards and improvements in recycling processes that draw up impressive figures but fall well short of its overall targets.

Transparency

The effect any of this will have on Apple, Walmart and the London Olympics is yet to be seen but if history has taught us anything it is that the consequences of insincerity and pretence are stark. It divests the perpetrator of trust, reputation and, inevitably, customers. Dishonesty drives away customers and since green commitment is an attribute people increasingly hold in high esteem, it is met with significant disgust.

This behaviour is also potentially damaging to other companies which may not at present be environmentally friendly but have decided to enact a sincere change of heart. They will have to fight much harder against the perception that they are merely faking for profit. However, the worst consequence is that the term ‘green’ may itself becomes synonymous with suspicion and distrust instead of inspiration and satisfaction.

A truly green brand will not limit their actions to only the most visible. An example of this kind of behind-the-scenes green activity is the policy in place at Expedia, in which they pay for employees’ public transport to reduce the number of car journeys getting to work. True green brands will be able to clearly support their claims with detailed evidence of relevant activity, rather than just relying on vague affirmations.

L’Oreal, a company which was singled out for impressive performance by Interbrand in the top 50 green companies 2011, provides a detailed ninety -page sustainable development report on its website. This level of transparency would help protect any brand against accusations of environmentally harmful practices. Combining this with improved training and greater expertise would help brands make more substantiated claims. Finally, brands should avoid the notion that shouting loudest underlines their credibility.

After all, just because something is easily heard doesn’t make it true.

Elly Woolston is founder of {united} marketing agency and has over twenty years experience in advertising and direct marketing in London and New York.