Is Green Marketing still worth the risk?

A recent article by Sarah Mahoney (FTC Slaps Kmart With ‘Fake Green’) highlights how the FTC, in its ongoing efforts to protect consumers from the increasingly sneaky “greenwashing” terms used by marketers, has charged Kmart Corp. with making “false and unsubstantiated claims” that its private-label paper products are biodegradable.

This charge however is splitting hairs according to Liz Gorman, VP of corporate responsibility for Cone Inc. Although the products actually are biodegradable if disposed properly, it’s only because of the way most people dispose of paper plates that they’ll never have a chance to.

And if the FTC doesn’t get you, the enviro bloggers are also watching. The Greenwashing Index, promoted by EnviroMedia Social Marketing in partnership with the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, calls out offenders on greenwashingindex.com. And not to be outdone, Greenpeace’s StopGreenwash.org has been developed to confront deceptive greenwashing campaigns, engage companies in debate, and give activists and lawmakers the information and tools they need to confront corporate deception.

To make matters worse, according to the July 31, 2008 report “A CMO’s Guide To Corporate Social Responsibility” by Forrester Research, consumers are very skeptical of any claim. 77% of consumers agreed with the statement “Almost all companies are saying that they are environmentally friendly, and it’s hard to know who’s telling the truth” and 70% said: “I don’t always think companies are being genuine when they talk about how they help the environment and society.”

The takeaway is not that companies should stop trying to be environmentally conscious or pursuing “green” ventures (such as eStatements) that also make good business sense. If anything, the environmental push in the last decade has raised the minimum bar by which all companies must now operate.

The point is that marketers need to be very cautious about promoting their efforts, taking credit for its effects, or leveraging these activities to differentiate or market their brand. The “green marketing” first mover advantage is long gone and the risks now seem to outweigh the potential benefits.