Avoid Greenwashing Your Business Sincerity leads to success in the emerging world of green marketing.

By Bill Roth

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Green marketing represents a fraction of the $150 billion advertising industry. But from corporate offices to media firms, the buzz is about finding ways to brand and advertise green.

This effort is not without risks. "Greenwashing" is the backlash from consumers and activists when they perceive a company is all talk. If you don't think this can damage a company's reputation, then do a web search on greenwashing and check out the lists of companies branded as engaging in "greenspin."

"Every brand is trying to strike a claim that they're aligned with sustainability," says Jim Maksymiu, president of Brand Xperience . The company's launch of electric-powered mobile billboards is an example of green experiential marketing, a method of creating new connections between the customer and brands. This strategy of brand enhancement lets consumers who view the billboards begin to associate what's advertised on it with zero emission vehicles, according to Maksymiu.

An informative site on this issue is stopgreenwashing.org . The following summarizes this site's definitions of greenwashing:

  1. Dirty business: When a business is carbon-centric and responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions but is touting a particular green program or product as representative of its core business values.
  2. Ad bluster: An expression related to cow manure is the term most identified with this practice. It's when an advertising program overplays the relative significance of a "green" program or product compared to its actual business practices.
  3. Political spin: Talking green but lobbying for legislation that benefits the business but not the environment.
  4. It's the law, stupid: When a business takes credit for actions that are mandated by law.

Here's one list of how green activists are identifying companies involved in greenwashing:

  1. Follow the money: They're monitoring the scale of expenditures made by corporations in lobbying for corporate interests vs. environmental interests.
  2. Track membership: They're identifying which special interest groups a company belongs to and whether this special interest group is advocating sustainability.
  3. Test for access to information: Activists, whom are also often the consumer, are asking for more information as they educate themselves on whom and what is truly green.
  4. Performance: Some activists have zero tolerance for companies that fail to strictly adhere to sustainability principals. The good news is that for most consumers, sustainability is a work in progress and therefore they appreciate it's a learning process. At the same time consumers are looking to see a commitment that's real and growing in alignment with their increasing commitment toward sustainability.

Today, Brand Xperience has five electric vehicle billboards in Chicago, and they're expanding to 10 more cities. They're exploring other experiential marketing innovations that are sustainable in practice, lower in cost and successful in engaging consumers seeking to educate themselves on green products and services.

Like many acts of sustainability, this approach to brand engagement saves money.

So what does this mean to an entrepreneur? Here are three lessons learned:

  1. Don't BS: During this green educational process, consumers will not forget those who betray their trust with BS that benefits a business at their expense or that of the environment.
  2. Design consumer-driven sustainable business practices: Sustainability is a grassroots phenomenon of consumers seeking to live a lifestyle that contributes toward energy independence and reduces the risks of climate change. If you're an "outside-the-box" entrepreneur then this is your opportunity as consumers search for innovative green solutions from credible suppliers who walk their talk.
  3. Reach out: Because sustainability is still emerging in its definitions, it's unlikely that your management team has all the answers. But your stakeholders do. Get feedback from associates, consumers, vendors and leaders to develop sustainable products that fill the $4 trillion market for green products and services.

Wavy Line

Bill is President of NCCT , a consulting firm that helps companies grow green revenue. His newest book, The Secret Green Sauce , profiles best practices being used by successful green businesses. He has previously held roles as senior vice president of PG&E Energy Services, president of Cleantech America (a solar power plant development company) and COO of Texaco Ovonics Hydrogen Solutions (which launched the first hydrogen-fueled Prius).

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