The “4A’s” are in town. For those not in the advertising business, that’s the American Association of Advertising Agencies. To those 1,000 or so of our colleagues attending the 4A’s annual convention in Austin this week, welcome. While you’re here, we’re asking you to pledge to help end “greenwashing.”
For consumers, greenwashing is when a business spends more time and money talking about how “green” it is than implementing sustainable business practices that lighten its environmental footprint. To our colleagues, our industry needs your commitment to authentic green advertising today because the trade groups representing us are telling the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) nothing is broken when it comes to green claims, so it need not be fixed.
In an official response to the FTC’s call for comments on the proposed update of its “Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims” (also known as “Green Guides”), the 4A’s, the American Advertising Federation (AAF), and the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) claim they speak for nearly all advertisers.
The attorneys representing the three ad trade groups write: “Since industry self-regulation actively promotes and relies on the Guides, and industry self-regulator bodies are actively focused on environmental advertising, there is no reason to make any additional changes to the Guides.”
The Green Guides have not been updated since 1998, when “recycling” and “composting” were king in environmental marketing claims, and when terms like “hydrogen fuel cell vehicles” and “renewable energy credits” were a mere twinkle in the eyes of the ad people behind multi-million-dollar advertising campaigns.
Our ad industry also claims, “There is currently no evidence that consumers are confused or misled by the types of environmental marketing claims being made in today’s marketplace, or that advertisers are using environmental claims on a broad basis to create false or misleading advertising.”
Did you know 25 percent of Americans believe coal is a renewable energy source, and another 15 percent can’t say whether it is or not? That’s what a 2010 EnviroMedia national survey of 1,022 consumers tells us (Opinion Research Corporation, Nov. 5-8, 2010, ± 3.2%).
The ad industry’s comments also say, “Common sense dictates that especially in today’s economy, consumers will not pay” more for products that provide an environmental benefit. But, according to our survey, 81 percent of Americans say they continue to buy green products despite the economy. Whether they really do or not, just saying “yes” indicates “green” claims are still quite meaningful to the consumer – and valuable to advertisers.
Regarding the so-called lack of evidence that consumers are confused, we encourage you to review the nearly 300 ads posted and reviewed by consumers on GreenwashingIndex.com, a site created by EnviroMedia and the University of Oregon to teach consumers how to scrutinize green marketing claims.
While EnviroMedia is not a member of the 4A’s, we have been members of AAF throughout our agency’s 14-year history and have long been involved in the activities of the Austin Advertising Federation. The AAF says it’s the “Unifying Voice of Advertising,” but when it comes to resisting a much-needed update of the Green Guides (which are merely just that – guides, not law), the AAF certainly does not speak for our agency.
As owners of a mid-size ad agency, we pledge to tell consumers the truth about the environmental and health benefits of every product and service we advertise.
We pledge not to be vague.
We coach clients to substantiate green claims.
We pledge not to fill our ads with flowers and trees to give the impression that products sprang from the earth when they didn’t.
We pledge not to create labels like “earth friendly seal” that make it appear a product is certified-something when it means nothing.
We agree with our ad industry’s comment that “green advertising is fragile.” That’s all the more reason to refrain from exaggerations or omissions that will damage consumers’ trust in environmental marketing claims. We disagree that updating the guides “runs the risk of stifling competition and innovation.” On the contrary, advertisers who innovate sustainable business tactics and tell their story authentically will grow strong, while greenwashers waste their advertising dollars, and lose credibility and customers.
So we ask our visiting colleagues this week: Are we going to stand for our own trade groups telling the FTC that if we have to back up our claims, we just won’t make any? And we ask consumers: Do you want environmental improvements to continue and greenwashing to stop? We urge everyone to take a look at the GreenwashingIndex.com to see some great examples of real environmental marketing claims and how consumers are reacting to them.
—Kevin Tuerff and Valerie Davis, Principals of EnviroMedia Social Marketing