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Don’t claim to be green unless you have the facts to prove it, warns Resonates’ Chris Dace

25th February 2013

In the early days of cleantech marketing, there were some grossly disingenuous attempts to pass off products, concepts and processes as clean or green, when in fact they were anything but that. We don’t need to name names here, but some of the worst offenders were big businesses hoping to keep the world addicted to fossil fuels, or defend their atrocious environmental records.

An American environmentalist first used the term “green washing” back in 1986 to describe the hotel industry’s attempts to urge guests to reuse their towels “for the sake of the environment“. The environmentalist’s view was that the hotel industry’s motives were based largely on profit.

Outing greenwash

The worst marketing greenwash offenders are now regularly “outed” – if not in the traditional media then by users of social media who actively look out for this kind of thing. Check out for some up-to-date examples.

As a PR consultancy, we’re more aware than most of the dangers of making unsubstantiated claims in marketing collateral or press releases, and we often press our clients to provide proof points for the product benefits that they are claiming. We were, therefore, somewhat taken aback when a journalist responded to a client’s recent press release and accused us of producing marketing greenwash.

We had issued a press release in which our client’s customer had claimed (in a comment that wasn’t central to the news release) that their use of combined heat and power (CHP) is a low-carbon solution. The journalist took issue with this, suggesting that compared to nuclear or the use of renewable energy, we could not claim that CHP is a low-carbon technology. In our client’s customer’s view, relative to their previous solution, they genuinely believe that CHP is a low-carbon solution. The lesson learned here is to take the time to verify even third-party claims, use accurate language and, wherever possible, provide data to back up your claims.

Listen to the experts?

In general, verifying claims about renewable energy is becoming more difficult when the experts can’t even agree. Take biomass, for example. A recent report, which uses the government’s own data, claims that “Biomass is dirtier than coal“. You would be forgiven for thinking that such a report was perhaps sponsored by the coal industry. In fact it was commissioned by the RSPB, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. The Renewable Energy Association hit back claiming that sustainably managed forests are in carbon credit as a result of better management linked to biomass energy use, citing Sweden as an example of a country that has got it right when it comes to sustainable use of bioenergy.

The benefits of low-carbon solutions will come under increasing scrutiny as the industry continues to grow. More businesses are looking at the green economy as an opportunity for market growth, and this is leading to a myriad of eco-friendly product launches. Inevitably some of those will come with dubious claims.

Journalists fulfil an essential role in scrutinising green product claims, which is why many businesses value good editorial coverage over advertising. Backing up your claims with solid data and third-party testimonials is more important than ever if you want to pass the marketing greenwash test and earn valuable, independent media coverage.

Chris Dace is managing director of PR consultancy Resonates

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