As celebrity environmentalist Al Gore favoured Vancouver with his An Inconvenient Truth climate change message and fundraiser recently, it occurred to me that I was personally awashed in green branding just a few days earlier. Maybe as a professional skeptic I did need a good scrubbing, but somehow I didn't feel all that clean afterwards.
The precipitating event was the pitch to me of a gift card – similar to a cash card but usable only for certain merchants that sign up – that had as its main marketing hook the promise to “offset carbon emissions with every purchase made”. Not saying it wasn't true. It might be. But if the main (and sometimes only) reason I should buy something is that it's Green, I'll likely pass. It often signals to me that there's no other reason, like price, quality, or need beyond some vague Green promise. Also, I'm wary about the whole carbon offsets thing. Near as I can tell, it's based on the dubious logic that if I supply some money to someone, that someone will in turn support green initiatives that will somehow solve the climate change issue. But there doesn’t seem to be any proof of that. Still, carbon offset exchanges seem to be springing up like weeds these days. I'm having no trouble following the logic chain of the Green business model though. Find some way for people to “help the environment”, and you'll probably tap into a pretty good and growing market. That’s my definition of greenwashing: companies and organizations portray front and centre that their products and services are environmentally friendly, whether they are or not. And it's rampant today. According to David Wigder's blog, Marketing Green, “green benefits are increasingly being offered across a variety of product categories.” Auto companies offer to offset carbon emissions for a year if you buy a new car, banks offer discounts on auto and home-equity loans that pay for environmentally-friendly goods; green credit cards offer bonus carbon credits for new applicants; real estate companies offer buyers and sellers a year's worth of carbon offsets; and a telecommunications company offers new subscribers a “carbon neutral phone”. Obviously, many marketers believe Green will nurture growth in sales. Problem is, a lot of people aren’t buying it. Gore’s visit drew a broadside of unbelieving vitriol on a Discover Vancouver forum. The green advertising blog It Grows On Trees cites a study from the market research firm Yankelovich that the majority of (US) consumers really don't care that much about the environment, or don't understand the issues involved. Another survey in Europe by the bank HSBC this summer showed that many people were “skeptical pessimists” about the green trend. HSBC, which has introduced a Climate Confidence index, called the phenomenon “green rejection”. In fact, some companies with good Green cred are no longer using it as their main marketing point, says It Grows On Trees. Instead they're emphasizing the quality of their products or services, with green as an added bonus. In other words they're competing on solid business principles – quality, price, value – instead of some vague, apocalyptic, and likely fleeting attachment to Green. Click here to read Tony's previous blog entry. Click here to read Tony's next blog entry.