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Avoid Green Backlash

These 5 tips will help you succeed in an increasingly skeptical market.

Search the word green and you'll get endless links related to the environment. Now search greenwashing. Did anything change? Probably not. And that's because greenwashing--the deceptive use of green marketing--is as prevalent today as green products and services. In 2007, the Shelton Group's Energy Pulse study found that 56 percent of respondents felt positively about the term green, though skepticism existed over such terms being used in packaging or positioning. That skepticism is even greater today.

"Unfortunately, we as consumer product companies have made the consumer jaded, because what we've told them hasn't been correct," says Myron Mullins, founder of Purely Products, a Knoxville, Tenn., producer of eco-friendly products including energy-efficient light bulbs and air purifiers. To overcome this cynicism, Mullins says, "entrepreneurs [must] deliver a solid product that defends itself in its functions and consumer usage." Even after 23 years in consumer product development and branding, Mullins, 45, has seen his share of opposition. He countered challenges against his $2 million company, launched in 2006, with third-party testing.

So how's a green business supposed to succeed in an increasingly skeptical market? Mullins and experts agree that to avoid backlash, you must take these steps early on:

  • Be honest, authentic and transparent. Be clear about who you are, what you're doing and who you're targeting, says Charisse McAuliffe, 31, founder and CEO of Fort Collins, Colo.-based GenGreen, an online database of green businesses and organizations.
  • Establish credibility. Join relevant associations, network in the green space and apply for certification seals (but be wary of the fly-by-night certification groups).
  • Do your homework. Research the market to make sure your product is relevant and useful; uncover which competitors and companies may have already tarnished their reputations; and verify that your suppliers, partners and distributors are in the clear.
  • Educate. "Green entrepreneurs are responsibile for educating their customers," McAuliffe says, adding that it's important to educate today's budget-conscious consumers on the money-saving aspects (e.g., longer product life spans) of sustainability.
  • Practice what you preach. Purely Products uses recycled containers for packaging, and the company has a comprehensive recycling program that uses an Environmental Protection Agency-certified recycler.

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This article was originally published in the June 2009 print edition of Entrepreneur's StartUps with the headline: Avoid Green Backlash.

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