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Green Marketing Claims: Whom Do You Trust?

by Jacquelyn A. Ottman  |  
August 11, 2009

Deservedly or not, industry these days is accused incessantly of greenwashing—"the practice of companies disingenuously spinning their products and policies as environmentally friendly, such as by presenting cost cuts as reductions in use of resources...a deceptive use of green PR or green marketing." (Wikipedia entry)

It's not surprising that industry isn't trusted to make truthful green marketing claims and provide information that is credible, straightforward, and useful.

Why? There are several reasons—not least the following:

  • Industry has a long history of polluting the water, land, and air.
  • The environmental benefit is often intangible—we can't see the fumes that don't come out of the power plant when we use a compact fluorescent lamp (CFL).
  • The science of making claims is imprecise; for instance, packages may be recyclable in theory but not in practicality.
  • And consumers don't know a lot about environmental issues. So it's easy for manufacturers to play on consumers' good intentions to recycle and cut down on waste.

So how do we restore trust in industry's green marketing claims and eco-labels? Can industry get its act together and bolster its credibility on its own? Or does it need help from other groups?

Several candidates offer different levels of credibility and suitability: NGOs, environmental groups, and government are obvious choices; product-safety giant Underwriters Laboratories (UL), for example, has over 100 years of credibility vouching for the safety of electrical products; Good Housekeeping just launched a green version of its well-known seal; and, of course, there's Consumer Reports.

At the Sustainable Brands '09 conference in Monterey, California, in early June, representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA—creators of the Energy Star label for energy efficiency and the Design for Environment seal for cleaning products), UL (which recently launched its environmental-claims-certification service), and Air Quality Systems' GreenGuard (indoor-air-quality certifiers) met for my annual panel on eco-labeling.

The speakers presented their programs, put forth data supporting their own credibility, and left it to the 350 participants at this sustainable-branding and green-marketing summit to decide whom they could trust to make green marketing claims, and why.

The Participants Weigh in

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Jacquelyn A. Ottman is president of J. Ottman Consulting, Inc., advisers to industry on green marketing and eco-innovation. She is the author of Green Marketing: Opportunity for Innovation. Contact her via (

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  • by Michelle Gouldsberry Wed Aug 12, 2009 via web

    The power to move markets towards truly ecological practices does indeed rest with the people. Consumers can demand that companies change their practices to become green.

    But, in order for consumers to make informed decisions about which products are truly green, they need to have critical information backed by properly assessed data. And, the information needs to be provided to consumers in a simple, straightforward way that enables them to easily alter ingrained purchasing behaviors to select more environmentally friendly products. This is the challenging part. In the book Ecological Intelligence (a great read), author Dan Goleman makes the case that this content needs to come from independent organizations (he cites GoodGuide as one example) who can provide "radical transparency." Green product mentions will then proliferate via word of mouth, committed consumer and social justice and environmental groups, and social media networks.

    I suspect that 95 percent of companies and manufacturers will not succeed in leading this change because of conflict of interest, whether perceived or real. Instead, they'll respond when consumers vote with their wallets. But the first step is consumer education that leads to a change in attitude.

  • by 'Dumebi Onwordi-Okonji Wed Sep 8, 2010 via web

    At best, green marketing or any such derivatives comes across as double talk. Brands tend now to engage in green marketing even when their products were manufactured in complete ignorance of greening! So, emphasis is placed on the wrong place!

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