Are we greenwashing?

Are we greenwashing?

I was out at the LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) conference last week in Boulder and though this event’s been held for years now, it was my first time in attendance.  My unscientific take on the conference is that for a long time, the LOHAS idea has been a niche concept — that the consumer group who fits into a lifestyle of health and sustainability has been a fringe/non mainstream prospect not all that attractive to major brands.  Rather, it’s been a very attractive target to “crunchier” niche product makers and service providers.

While many of those manufacturers and service providers were in attendance…so were several major brands.  And that speaks to the mainstreaming of this once-niche consumer segment.  But because of the history of this being a niche conference, Joel Makower of asked a very prescient question in his main-stage appearance on the first day:  “Is LOHAS greenwashing.”

What he meant was have all of us — old timers and new timers to the conference alike — all drunk the Kool Ade so much that we’re now believing and preaching things that aren’t entirely true?  Have we all become so bought into the idea of sustainability that we’re ignoring some of the very real challenges and obstacles that exist in moving our society to a greener one?  Are we all so happy about the mainstream green market opportunity that we’re only looking at — and talking about — the upside, while not really dealing with and talking about the downside, kind of pretending it doesn’t exist?

At least, that’s what Joel’s question meant to me.

It resonated because I notice every time I speak to a group of folks marketing green and energy efficient products — and I speak to such groups 20-30 times a year — I notice the gobbersmacked looks I get when I show focus group clips of people saying “what’s a VOC? What’s a GMO?  What’s green power?” I notice the curious expressions when I show data that nearly half of the population can’t name a feature of a green home, and more than half think natural is a better term than organic.

In short, most marketers of green products are so on board the train, that it doesn’t occur to them that not everyone else is.  And that’s a dangerous spot to be in — in that place we risk wasting a lot of marketing dollars on messages that assume a consumer knows more than they do.  But, perhaps even more worrisome, we risk communicating a false meaning to a consumer.  When we watch consumers try to define some of the terms and jargon that get readily thrown around on packages and ads, they talk themselves into definitions that are way off the mark.  So, inadvertently, we’re communicating false claims, simply because we assumed that the person on the listening end knew what the hell we meant.

So, yes, we may be greenwashing, albeit accidentally.  Or, at the very least, we may be preaching to the choir.  If you want to sell your product or service to the mainstream market, get out of your own belief system and into the world of the mainstream consumer.

About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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