Will 'greenwashing' dampen eco-enthusiasm?

If you've noticed that companies are piling onto the "go green" bandwagon faster than ever these days, you may be as surprised to hear people starting to question the trend, writes Dianne Buckner.

If you've noticed how companies are piling onto the "go green" bandwagon faster than ever these days, you may be as surprised as I was to hear an eco-friendly entrepreneur questioning the trend at a small business week event last week in Thunder Bay, Ont.

"Do you think we have reached the point where labelling a product green or environmentally friendly will no longer be of benefit?" Derek Bravinder asked me. "Companies are putting this label on just about everything right now, and I feel like the backlash against this style of advertising must be coming soon."

Bravinder, 31, obviously wasn't questioning the sense of more sustainable business practices. His parents run a small organic grocery store, and his business partner Brad Doff is taking his masters in urban sustainability. Bravinder and Doff are gearing up to launch a natural oral-care product in early 2011, and both believe strongly that their venture should deliver a "triple bottom line" — results that are financially, socially and environmentally positive.

So I was a bit taken aback by his question. Backlash? 

Quite the opposite — consumers seem to be very keen on environmentally friendly products, as well they should. Note the wild popularity of vehicles such as the Toyota Prius, and the Chevrolet Equinox (600 jobs added last week in Oshawa, Ont., to meet demand for this fuel-efficient SUV). And look at the studies that say people will pay a somewhat higher price  for a product or service that will make them feel good about being part of the solution, not the problem.

But Bravinder is surely tuned in to all the talk these days about "greenwashing." Just like whitewashing can hide a problem, this term has been coined to describe the corporate practice of trying to look more "green," or environmentally friendly, than is really the case.

You can see examples of the best and worst eco claims on The GreenWashing Index, a fascinating site run by the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communications along with EnviroMedia Social Marketing. It aims to help consumers become more savvy about evaluating environmental marketing claims. The index rates corporate messages on a scale that goes from "authentic" to "suspect" to "bogus."

Maybe these green pretenders are actually committing a new form of pollution, contaminating the marketplace with their jumped-up claims, devaluing the messages of sincere and worthy companies.

Maybe I'm cynical, but I'm not surprised that some companies apparently spend more on marketing their initiatives than they do on the initiative itself. Or that they make a big deal about a green practice that is in reality a tiny part of their business. Or point to a change that they would have done anyway to save money (such as offer on-line billing to cut down on paper bills) — but spin it as if their only motivation is to save the planet.

So maybe Bravinder's question wasn't quite so off-the-wall. Maybe these green pretenders are actually committing a new form of pollution, contaminating the marketplace with their jumped-up claims, devaluing the messages of sincere and worthy companies. 

Even so, I told him that in my opinion, it's still worthwhile for businesses to tout their eco advantage, as long as it's real and it's properly motivated. 

And since then, I've checked in with a couple of eco-minded small business owners I've met recently.

Chris Black was nominated for the Sustainable Leadership award from the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce. Along with his wife Debbie, Black runs The Blue Door restaurant, specializing in locally sourced seafood. Their restaurant was the second one east of Ontario to be certified with the Ocean Wise credential, a program administered by the Vancouver Aquarium, to recognize seafood that's gathered using sustainable methods.

"KFC is out there using the Double Down  to market," says Black, "We're happy to talk about the advantage of diver scallops over dredged scallops, or wild salmon over farmed salmon. And we know it's helping our business."

Black makes an interesting point — that green marketing has a limited lifespan, but not due to consumer skepticism.

"I think five years from now you won't be able to advertise this type of thing, because it'll be the norm," says Black,  "It won't be acceptable to behave in any other way."

Gary Flinn of Taylor Printing Group says his company uses vegetable-based ink, recycles like mad, is Bullfrog-powered, and only uses paper from sustainable forests.  "We have a lot of government tenders go out, and they specify that the printer must be FSC certified," says Flinn, explaining that designation means the company is part of the Forest Stewardship Council. 

He can't quite wrap his head around the whole notion of green-washing. His firm doesn't advertise at all, and he assumes that only legitimately eco-minded companies should draw attention to themselves. "If you're doing it, flaunt it.  But if you're not doing it, keep quiet. Don't try to fool people, because people in general aren't stupid."

True! And that's why I think Bravinder and his partner will be able to use their eco-friendly approach to attract customers to their new product. A lot of people do want to be smarter consumers. Although there are green-washers out there and a backlash may be beginning, if you and your product or service is legitimate then you'll pass the test and be able to thrive.