Green Marketing: Two Things You Need to Know

When it comes to marketing your products as green, there are two things you need to know. First, consumers are generally confused about green products. Second, the FTC is revising its guidelines for green marketing.

Green vs. Bettergreen lightbulb

Recent years have seen a surge in companies implementing triple-bottom line practices. This has resulted in the bombardment of marketing messages to consumers, leaving them somewhat dazed and confused. Consider the following, drawn from a GreenBiz survey of marketing polls:

  • Only 21% of consumers can identify a sustainable product, and only 12% can identify a sustainable company.
  • 67% of consumers say they are confused by the messages companies use to talk about social and environmental commitments.
  • 63% of Americans believe that global warming is happening, but may not understand why.

Taken together, these data points suggest that the majority of people don’t understand global warming, making it more difficult for them to understand marketing messages related to sustainability, and leaving them unable to know which products and companies are actually sustainable. Throw in rampant greenwashing - the deceptive practice of portraying products as being more environmentally friendly than they really are -  and the result is that you have quite a challenge on your hands if you’re trying to market your products as being green.

This confusion about green marketing has recently prompted Joel Makower of GreenBiz to claim that “Green Marketing is Over. Let’s Move On.” His argument is that green marketing has not resulted in consumers purchasing more green products. What is instructive, however, is to look at the companies that have been successful in selling green products. Counterintuitively perhaps, these companies don’t market themselves as being green.

These firms embody what sustainability is all about: reducing needless consumption, getting maximum value from physical goods, connecting people, creating community, sharing. These firms typically don’t market themselves or their services as green or sustainable. They’re simply better.

FTC Green Guides and Marketing

The second point to keep in mind regarding green marketing is that last year, the FTC began the process of revising its Green Guides. These guides are designed to help marketers avoid making misleading environmental claims. Among the recommended changes are:

  • You should avoid using “unqualified general environmental benefit claims.” Popular marketing terms such as “green” and “eco” fall into this category – they claim to have an environmental benefit, but are so general that the actual benefit they have is not clear.
  • If you claim that your product is “degradable,” it must degrade within one year and it can’t be something destined for the landfill.
  • Third-party certifications will need to be qualified, to show, for example, “what the logos mean and who is verifying them.” The FTC is cracking down on certifications that have no substance, such as the Tested Green certification that was “neither tested nor green.”

The establishment of clear marketing guidelines, and especially the crackdown on meaningless certifications, should help to eventually minimize the confusion on the part of consumers. To learn more about the Green Guides, you can download a Summary of the Proposal.

What does all this mean for your business?

There are two key takeaways. First, be careful about your green marketing claims. Make sure that your marketing materials abide by the FTC recommendations. Second, remember that customers are going to buy your products because they are better, not just because they are green. Have your marketing speak to the value that you provide to your customers first, and make sure that you can substantiate any and all environmental claims you make.

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