New Zealand: How to avoid greenwashing - the risk of misleading claims

Last Updated: 3 March 2011
Article by Corinne Blumsky

As Kermit said, it's not easy being green. But it easy to avoid 'green washing'.

With more eco-savvy consumers looking for 'green' products and services, any business that has a legitimate green claim has one up on its competitors.

But like all other claims made about a product or service, green claims must be accurate. Making misleading and unsubstantiated green claims is called 'green washing' and is the focus of many consumer groups, not to mention the Commerce Commission.

A green claim can quickly become green washing if you stretch the truth. And green washing carries legal and reputation risks. Below are a few of the things you should think about before making a green claim, along with some examples of each.

Choose your words carefully

As marketers you know that subtle word changes can result in markedly different messages. And, as a general rule, the more absolute the language you use the greater the legal risk. For example, claiming your product is "environmentally friendlier" is a safer bet than claiming it is "environmentally friendly". This is because "friendlier" can be friendlier than before or friendlier than competing products, and therefore gives you some wiggle room (although you still need to be able to point to some friendlier aspect of the product). On the other hand, "friendly" is closer to absolute. It suggests, at least, environmental neutrality. If your product, including its packaging and production, is not environmentally neutral then you may have a problem.

Real life example: A Wellington bus company replaced its fleet of diesel buses with electric buses. The company had advertising on its buses to promote its new greener service. The adverts claimed, amongst other things, that the new buses were "the greenest way to commute". Nothing gets up a cyclist's nose more than advertising that suggests a motor (electric or otherwise) is more environmentally friendly than riding a bike. Cyclists will complain and win (they did and they did – see ASA decision 10/072).

Ask for proof

Businesses will sometimes lean on their internal or external marketers to make green claims on the basis of bold statements only.

Bold statements are not the basis on which to make green claims. Green claims should be based on solid evidence, preferably from a third party. If you have evidence to support a green claim you can leverage off that evidence with confidence. And you will know how far you can go with your green claim. But, without such evidence you are exposed. The safest option is to ask for evidence to support any claim someone wants you to put in print. 'No proof, no print' should be your mantra.

Real life example: A taxi company replaced its petrol fleet with LPG. It claimed the switch would "reduce CO2 pollution by up to 25%". That 25% claim was not a pie in the sky guess; it was based on some rough calculations. But rough calculations are not the same as evidence. The Commerce Commission asked for evidence to support the claim. The company could not provide it. The media picked up the story.

Use green brands and imagery as appropriate

Eco-names, pictures of dolphins, green bottles and other similar imagery all help sell product. This imagery sends a message to consumers about the greenness of the product. However, these types of green cues carry legal risk when untrue. Just as with bold statements, the use of green branding and imagery needs to be supported by evidence. Don't get too clever—apply the 'no proof, no print' mantra to these aspects of product packaging and advertising as well.

Real life example: Featuring a dolphin on a can of tuna tells customers that the tuna was caught in a way that is 'dolphin friendly' just as much as writing DOLPHIN FRIENDLY on the can. Greenpeace, and others, have long been campaigning in the media against companies that use such imagery without evidence to support the claim. Separately, a US court case involving use of a misleading 'dolphin safe' stamp led to a US$40,000 award.

As green marketing continues to grow in value, so will the scrutiny of what is being said (and visually portrayed) .

In a nutshell, the best way to avoid issues arising is to:

  • make sure what you say is true
  • make sure what you say can be supported by evidence
  • seek advice about what you can and cannot say (or visually portray) in your advertisements before launching your campaign. And by that we mean not the day before you launch, but preferably when you're coming up with initial concepts.

It's not easy being green—but it can be easy to avoid 'green washing'.

An edited version of this article was published in NZ Marketing magazine, Jan/Feb 2011.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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