All that glitters isn’t green

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Marketers becoming savvy at promoting sustainable sheen

Polar bears are drowning. Heat waves are killing people every year. About 30 percent of all species are threatened by rising temperatures. Death, famine, disease – all attributed to a planet on fire from global warming.

So what to do?

Have a fashion show. Take your own bags when you shop. Buy more sustainable light bulbs. Maybe host a fun run.

Just do something to cash in on the frenzy and market your product as “green” or “sustainable.”

As far as advertisers are concerned, “green” is the new black. Everything from cereal to dishwashing soap claims to save the environment.

Companies are eager to associate themselves with the environment, deservedly or not – an effect called “green-washing” by environmental groups who despair about getting their message out amid all the noise.

But as the green buzz grows louder, many people are tuning out.

A study by the Shelton Group, an advertising agency and market research company, showed consumers were between 22 percent and 55 percent less likely to buy green products during 2007 than they were the year before. Message overload appeared to be the major factor, said Suzanne Shelton, the company’s president.

“What we’ve been seeing in focus groups is a real green backlash,” she said. “During the last six months, when the agency screened environmentally themed advertisements, we’d see over half the room roll their eyes: ‘not another green message.'”

Vladimir Jones President and CEO Meredith Vaughn said her clients have to fight “green-washing.”

“The key is that your sustainable message has to be credible,” she said. “For instance, Waste Management can’t credibly talk about being green. But Xcel Energy can – because they’ve done all these things to comply with state and federal regulations and have done it earlier than they needed to.”

Demonstrated commitment has to lead to information consumers can use easily, she said.

“The message has to be – there are big things that need to be done, and we’ll do those,” Vaughn said. “But there are small things that can help, and this is what you can do. Together, we can work on this problem more easily and quickly than if we were working separately. That’s the message that works.”

Companies interested in marketing themselves as green do a disservice if they aren’t actually sustainable, she said.

“You can talk about it all you want, but if you aren’t doing actionable, creditable things all during the year – it’s just wasted dollars,” Vaughn said.

And that’s the key to separating the actual sustainable products from the ones just trying to cash in on the latest trend, said Eric Cefus, executive director of the Catamount Institute and the Pikes Peak Sustainable Business Network.

“A lot of groups are throwing around the term,” he said. “And they don’t know what it means to be green. But you have to take the time and set yourself up as credible – that’s when people start listening to you.”

Events are one way of making a direct correlation, he said.

“Right now, so much about the economy is tied to the environment,” he said. “People should be listening – and business should be as well. The problem is that if you aren’t actually sustainable – people’s eyes tend to glaze over.”

One Response to All that glitters isn’t green

  1. If there is one truth that we hold dear in the world of advertising and communications, it is that perception is reality—and as the President of a large advertising and communications firm in Colorado Springs, one of my jobs is to help shape perception on behalf of our clients. However, as a consumer, I am often subject to my own perceptions being influenced by the very industry in which I toil.

    In a recent article titled, “All that glitters isn’t green Marketers becoming savvy at promoting sustainable sheen,” I was asked to comment on how companies are, or are not, perceived as “green” and what impact it might have on their brand. While it was certainly not intentional, my quote in response to that question appeared to disparaged a very well respected Colorado company—Waste Management. My intent was to point out that a Company that deals with environmentally sensitive issues such as waste management may find it challenging to position themselves as “green.” To change the perception of what they do and how they do it. However, when I read that article it came across that I was condemning them for simply not having a “green” initiative at all or platform to stand on—and that could not be further from the truth. Waste Management has been an exemplary steward of the environment and puts a tremendous amount of time and resources towards programs such as environmental protection, groundwater protection, environmental engineering and recycling. The Company has received numerous awards across several states for their focus on such issues as renewable energy, climate and wildlife habitats.

    My apologies to Waste Management and their dedicated employees for any “misperceptions” my comments may have created. Please know that I appreciate all that you do as good partners for our environment and our communities. For more information Waste Management’s sustainability efforts, please visit:

    Meredith Vaughan
    May 11, 2009 at 10:12 am