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
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
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
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.
To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.
Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.
The Sportscraft refunds and returns policy limitations went beyond consumer's rights under the Australian Consumer Law.
Some comments from our readers… “The articles are extremely timely and highly applicable” “I often find critical information not available elsewhere” “As in-house counsel, Mondaq’s service is of great value”
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).