A spotter's guide to greenwash – and greenwankHome » Blog » A spotter's guide to greenwash – and greenwank
We're aware of greenwash—but what about greenwank? Kath Dewar wonders about the relevance of some green marketing.
As the business world discovers there’s money and consumer favour to be found in not trashing the planet, most marketers are struggling to catch up. Immersed in the art of promoting style over substance and inventing products for needs you never knew you had, genuine sustainability can take us marketers some getting used to.
From companies who are doing a little, or want to pretend they are, we get greenwash: environmental claims that mislead, distract or exaggerate. I think of greenwash in a range of five deceptive colours:
- Wishy washy claims to be ‘environmentally friendly’ from the likes of fossil fuel supplier OnGas.
- Dodgy labelling. Cheapskates McDonalds choosing Rainforest Alliance rather than credible Fairtrade to promote their coffee conscience.
- Fake-it pictures, to give customers a visual green treat. When Kleenex disposable tissues featured eco-hero Wall-e on their boxes in the US, Greenpeace culture-jammed it brilliantly.
- Over-the-top claims. Did Saab really think they could convince Kiwis their entire fleet is carbon neutral because they were planting a few trees? The Advertising Standards Authority said they shouldn’t have tried.
- Lonely flowers in the desert. It’s great that Westpac staff clean up beaches, the bank is cutting its energy use and plans to encourage suppliers to be more sustainable. And customer education’s a good thing. But I’d sooner they saved the advertising until they had environmental and social criteria for their core business of lending and investing—that would really make a difference.
By confusing customers, and making us all more sceptical, greenwash delays and undermines the real greening we need. Rather than advertising, these companies should first be investing in authentic, demonstrable and substantial change.
Sadly, we also have unhelpful marketing from companies doing brilliant eco-work. They’re rightly proud of what they are doing. But their marketing often gets it wrong.
These beautiful ads and brochures explain the green-features they offer, but are little more than self-indulgent greenwank: comforting descriptions of worthy initiatives that fail to make those initiatives relevant to customers, staff or shareholders.
To be effective, their green marketing needs to explain and celebrate the benefits their sustainability brings to their audiences. In tough economic times, it's marketers’ job to make the relevance of sustainability improvements crystal clear. The success and continuation of the initiatives can depend on it.
Of course, the real eco-crims are those companies, and the marketers in them, who continue to use the powerful and persuasive psychology of advertising to convince us we have ever more needs we never knew we had.
The worst example I’ve seen lately is the push to product-ise every day of a woman’s monthly cycle, lest we be less than ‘fresh’. Most of us use enough disposable sanitary product in our lives to line a landfill as it is ($58 million-worth a year in New Zealand) without advertisers trying to convince us we need to protect our knickers every day of the month. But the baby boomers are reaching menopause, so something must be done to keep the tills ringing.
Thank goodness we consumers have the power to vote with our wallets—and to complain to the Advertising Standards Authority and the Commerce Commission when the greenwashers strike.