Green marketing just good marketing: An interview with Jacquie Ottman

JB: In a marketplace that’s becoming saturated with green advertising, do consumers need to worry about greenwashing, meaning false or misleading environmental claims?

JO: First of all, I believe that greenwashing is a lot less prevalent than a lot of people now believe. I take issue with The Sins of Greenwashing report, when they say more than 95% of products making green claims are greenwashing, because I think the standards that they’re using are too high and actually incorporate things that the FTC [Federal Trade Commission] Green Guides* don’t. So I think the TerraChoice people are setting the bar too high. And I think they’ll be the first ones too admit that most of what they’re seeing and monitoring and measuring is inadvertent.

JB: So how do companies avoid overstating the greenness of their products and make sure they aren’t getting ahead of themselves with green marketing?

JO: One way, and this may sound a little heretical coming from a green marketing consultant, is not to lead with green benefits. Don’t call your laundry detergent Happy Planet, call it Method or call it something else because the moment you call it Happy Planet, or anything with “Earth” in it, people have these expectations that the product is thoroughly green.

Another thing that they can do is follow the FTC Green Guides. And finally–this a tricky thing–don’t get out ahead of the market. [Looking at the example of Sunchips’ compostable bag], I have to question as a business person and as a consultant who helps business people balance environmental messages with brand messages, why they would have spent so much time and resources talking about composting when most Americans–and, I venture to say, Canadians, too–do not have access to composting. I think they’d recognize that now because the latest iteration of their package is still the compostable bag but the composting message is now toned down. You don’t want to get out ahead of the customer: you want to work with what they know.

JB: Should consumers be concerned that some companies sell both green brands and more traditional brands that may have no environmental benefits? Does it show that the company is moving in the right direction or does it indicate a conflict of interest?

JO: The interpretation I would like to see happen in the marketplace is the former, that they’re making progress in the right direction. Businesses have responsibilities to the planet, to their shoppers, their employees, their shareholders, so it’s very risky for a business to just drop the current line and go out with the green alternative without prior experience. For example, why did Tide introduce Tide Coldwater and not just put regular Tide in a blue bottle and say ‘now use it in cold water’? Because that represents too much risk to a billion dollar brand. They don’t know yet how consumers will respond to cold water. I keep thinking, ‘Hey Procter & Gamble, your next big move, the real sustainability leadership move, is to make big Tide perform well in cold water. Because by having a Tide Coldwater out there you are suggesting that you still have to use hot water with regular Tide.’

Does that mean that they’re not environmentalists, not trying to do the right thing? Not necessarily. I think it means that they are trying to do the right thing. They went so far as to take their flagship brand that identifies them as a company and came out with a cold water version. That’s pretty gutsy. That may be the future of Tide but they just have to put it out there and get experience with it first.

*In Canada, similar guidelines regarding environmental claims are provided by the Competition Bureau.


Learn more about Jacquie Ottman and The New Rules of Green Marketing on her blog.

Julia Barnes is a Senior Editor of the Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series Blog.

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  • Peter Rose

    I disagree with Ms. Ottman that terrachoice’s seven sins of greenwashing is to hard for companies to avoid. I agree that many of the sins that companies make may be inadvertent however thats why the competition bureau in Canada and terrachoice have specific guidelines and lists to check against. Furthermore, there are some sins that are common sense and in my opinion if committed are very likely active greenwashing.

    If a company is willing to place a green claim on a product they should be willing to put the due diligence forward that they are not committing a green washing sin. Some of these are really simple for example the “sin of irrelevance” committed by making an environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products. “CFC-free” is a common example,
    since it is a frequent claim despite the fact that CFCs are banned by law. My opinion is if you sin by marketing an irrelevant claim that is active greenwashing.

    Overall I think all products should have a green rating similar to what the GoodGuide is attempting to do. That way its not about purchasing based on a single claim its about purchasing based on the ability to compare environmental performance amongst products in the same category.

  • Melissa Peneycad

    While I appreciate Ottman’s viewpoints, some of her statements are incorrect and misleading and can result in dangerous marketplace consequences. For example, I take issue with her statement that “consumers don’t expect perfection”. This statement, if true, removes any incentive for companies to strive for perfection. It basically opens up the door for companies to say “Well, consumers don’t actually expect us to share the good, the bad, and the ugly about our products and, since consumers don’t expect that – or perfection – we just won’t strive for it”. Consumers are beginning to demand better green marketing. Raising the bar and continuing to demand that corporations enhance their green marketing is the only way we’ll see real improvement.

    And this is precisely what TerraChoice’s “Sins of Greewashing” is doing. The research has highlighted a significant issue in the marketplace and it has got people like you and me talking about it. Don’t fool yourself – greenwashing IS rampant but improvements are certainly being made thanks to those who continue to educate consumers and marketers about the issue and how greenwashing can be mitigated, to the retailers who are demanding improved transparency from their suppliers, to the many marketers who are devoting themselves to learning about the issue of greenwashing and how green marketing can be improved, and to the consumers who are demanding perfection.

    Yes, TerraChoice does set the bar high – but why shouldn’t it?

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