Because not all customers are socially and environmentally engaged—at least as their primary motivators (see the market segmentations above)—messaging around these values isn’t always the most effective approach. It depends deeply on the exact customers you’re speaking
with, but in general, messaging around claims, benefits, and insights regarding efficiency, health, and safety are more successful propositions. It’s not that customers value these benefits more than social and environmental benefits (although the majority do), but that these issues appeal to a wider group of customers that spans both those who are sustainability-engaged and those who aren’t.
If a marketing strategy (with associated and supporting messages) emphasizes efficiency or health benefits in order to drive customers to a more sustainable solution, that’s perfectly fine. For customers who respond to socially – and environmentally-targeted appeals (who number many fewer), these benefits serve only to reinforce their willingness to choose these products. For sure, these benefits should be mentioned, but they don’t have to be the focus of the story in order to reach all of these customers.
In general, the attributes most valued in purchases of all kinds include the following:
• Efficiency and value
• Health and safety
• Performance and effectiveness (sometimes, this relates to features)
• Price (though value can be subjective and relative)
• Status and identity (which are all culturally – mediated)
• Honesty, credibility, and authenticity
• Social justice
Messaging to any or all of these is possible, depending on what customer research has determined are the best prospects for gathering customer attention and communicating benefits effectively. In addition, the same solutions can be messaged differently to different customer segments in different contexts (whether these divide geographically, demographically, by media, or any other attribute). As long as the claims aren’t conflicting, it’s fine to tout the deeper social and environmental benefits of an offering to those who will respond accordingly while touting health or efficiency benefits of the same solution to others in different contexts. Not all customers are ready to hear about all benefits, but for most, social and environmental performance isn’t a turn-off for products they value for other reasons. Often, it’s just another benefit, whether they value it or not.
In order to make successful claims about benefits—especially those involving social and environmental impacts—stick to honest, detailed descriptions in clear, plain language. Customer research around triggers will help you determine the right imagery, language, and approach, and periodic testing with customers can tell you when you’re on or off target.
A great guide to making claims successfully comes from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, with the following maxims:
In order to make successful claims about benefits—especially those involving social and environmental impacts—stick to honest, detailed descriptions in clear, plain language.  
• Claims should consider the whole product life cycle.
• Claims using endorsement or certification should be used with caution (as well as permission).
• Claims should not overstate the level of scientific acceptance.
• Avoid problematic, vague terms like “green” and “environmentally safe,” “energy efficient,” “recyclable,” “carbon neutral,” “renewable,” or “green energy.”
Organizations need to scrutinize carefully their messages around products to be sure that they’re not only accurate but also reasonable. For example, when McDonald’s launched a line of salads as a healthier alternative to the hamburgers they usually offered, they didn’t check to see if both the calorie count and fat content were actually higher than the sandwiches they were meant to replace (due to the salad dressings included). The company was rightly criticized for completely misunderstanding the point of healthier food.
However, many claims of greenwashing aren’t fair either. When General Electric pledged a $4.5B investment over three years toward developing alternative energy technologies, some criticized the move as self-serving since the advancements would reap rewards for the company in terms of efficiency and revenues in expanded markets. However, that’s exactly the point of innovation. Alternative energy development isn’t supposed to be a charity.
It’s already a sound business practice. This fact is what’s fueling the interest in sustainable practices among traditional businesses and industries. It’s not a problem that companies are investing in ways that promise to create profits—that’s what companies do. As long as these developments are more sustainable, they still represent sustainable progress.
These aren’t the only guidelines that developers should follow, but they’re a fantastic start. Companies shouldn’t be afraid to make accurate, relevant claims if they do so appropriately. Likewise, they shouldn’t be afraid of dissent or disagreement if it is reasonable and creates a health dialogue about the issues. For example, a famous 2006 discussion ensued between Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, after Pollan criticized Whole Foods in his book. Initially, Mackey wrote an open letter to Pollan on his company blog. Then Pollan posted a reply on his Web site. Almost a year later, the two met on stage at UC Berkeley for what was expected to be a heated debate but became more of a mutually respected discussion.
. . . [companies] shouldn’t be afraid of dissent or disagreement if it is reasonable and creates a healthy dialogue about the issues.
More important than the points either made in the discussion was the fact that the discussion took place at all, and those watching it (it’s available online as well) were able to learn about the complexity of these subjects, not to mention where each opinion stands. That this discussion took place at all is a great sign that some of the players in the sustainability world (or, more accurately in this case, the organic food industry) are willing to discuss important aspects of these issues instead of merely beating each other up in the typically sensational – istic media. The result was undoubtedly not only good for both Whole Foods and Pollan but also for customers, the industry, and these movements.
It’s important for organizations of all kinds to pay attention to the details of their actions and to be sure that their processes and policies (as well as their product and service offerings) align with their corporate strategies, mission, and values. Discussions like these can help
calibrate when they are aligned (or not), and preferably these discussions should happen inside the company during development and not wait until offerings, actions, and messaging are finally launched.
It’s always a good idea for organizations to offer more details about their products, services, and policies, and their Web sites are a great place to do this. Since sustainability issues aren’t simple, it’s likely that messages—especially advertising—are going to be correspondingly simplified (but still accurate). Offering substantiating material about claims, as well as outlining assumptions, is one of the ways organizations can set context, explain their approaches, and dispel charges of greenwashing. Education about these issues expands exponentially as it is shared, and it helps create a more fertile foundation for future improvements in sustainable practices. This expansion extends to information about what to do with products once customers are finished with them, how to recycle them (and where), and how best to dispose of them (if necessary). Relevant information should be made available
to all stakeholders (customers, vendors, clients, employees, partners, suppliers, communities, NGOs, governments, and so on) in order to facilitate the most progress (and earn the most respect).
Offering substantiating material about claims, as well as outlining assumptions, is one of the ways organizations can set context, explain their approaches, and dispel charges of greenwashing.
When companies in industries that just can’t be sustainable promote sustainable advances, it strains credibility, even if the advancements are real and accurate. For example, Walmart’s and other retailers’ current model of selling almost all of its products manufactured in China may never be sustainable. In addition, weapons manufacturers and energy companies whose power comes predominantly from coal or nuclear plants may be able to improve somewhat but still never be able to claim being a sustainable business in the larger sense. A slightly
better coal-firing process can make important improvements, but these improvements pale in comparison to the damage they still do. Consider an example of a company that promoted the fact that they no longer used child labor for manufacturing on weekends. For most customers, the 29 percent reduction in child labor wasn’t significant and didn’t justify the percentage of manufacturing still dependent on children. Common sense is a perfectly good guide here, as is testing the claims with people beforehand. Too often, advertisers do their best to find something to say that’s accurate and positive without stopping to consider how ludicrous it might still be from the public’s point of view. It’s better to say nothing or wait until an advancement is more significant than to test the ire of customers, communities, and other stakeholders prematurely.
When companies in industries that just can’t be sustainable promote sustainable advances, it strains credibility, even if the advancements are real and accurate.
Lastly, it’s unfortunately common for many companies to give money to a charity and then spend many times that amount promoting the fact that they did just that. This can be an easy check against greenwashing or acting against stated values for organizations. If you’re spending more time promoting your good deed and advancements than you are advancing your values, you’re definitely in the danger zone. Likewise, if your spending on lobbying against your values exceeds the amount that you are spending in favor of your values or goals, then you’re not only in the danger zone for public messaging, but your actions are completely misaligned with your values. For example, in 2007, Ford, Toyota, and many other companies lobbied heavily against increasing the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards while simultaneously pledging to raise the efficiency for their offerings and touting the benefits they’d already attained with hybrid models. In addition, Ford was showing off its newly renovated River Rouge Factory (its oldest and biggest), having been redesigned by
McDonough Associates (one of the authors behind the Cradle to Cradle framework). The factory is now a stunning example of sustainability principles at work in the industry, but the juxtaposition of the two policies revealed both a lack of commitment to sustainability, as well as a badly convoluted and contradictory corporate strategy.
One of the most successful rebranding efforts to date, in terms of sustainability, is what BP launched in 2002. Under the leadership of CEO John Browne, British Petroleum hired Landor to rethink its brand identity in response to new strategies he was implementing inside the company. In order to communicate its new vision as a contemporary energy company with an eye toward the future, and differentiate it from other oil companies, the rebranding effort dumped the old name in favor of just the initials and promoted several new phrases to fit them, the most popular being “beyond petroleum.” The addition of a new logo (dubbed the “Heilos”) and a savvy advertising campaign created an unprecedented shift in consumer
and industry perception in this area (see Figure 18.2).
http://www. flickr. com/photos/
BP’s new logo.
The company has come under heavy criticism for not practicing what it preaches, including the facts that although it has committed to invest heavily in solar and alternative energies, these investments pale in comparison to their investments, holdings, and revenues from nonrenewable and “dirty” energy. The company also has a poor safety record and other problems.
Still, the execution of their rebranding was brilliantly handled, including materials geared specifically for employees to understand the organization’s new values and policies. This is
an example of the issue we examined for SRI funds, where acknowledging and supporting the “best of breed” within an industry are at odds with the balance of claims and performance for the same company. To be sure, BP’s stated strategic changes are much more positive, in sustainable terms, than those of their competitors. However, they still fall short of the ideal we want to see. Do we praise the company for the gains it does make or withhold that praise until it has reached sustainable perfection? Are its claims merely greenwashing or part of the process of corporate aspiration and change?
One of the best examples of an organization that is reaching toward “restorative” status on the Sustainability Helix is Clif Bar, a San Francisco Bay Area company that specializes in sport and energy bars. Clif Bar was started in 1990 by Gary Erikson to produce great-tasting energy bars for
his 175-mile-long bicycle rides. At the time, the only bars available were nutritionally impressive but tasted oppressive. In 1992, he started selling his bars, named after his father, at a local bakery and quickly found a following among bicyclists and climbers. By 2004, revenues were over $100M/year and Clif Bar had about 12 percent of the entire market for energy bars (see Figure 18.3).
FIGURE 18.3. fWl http://www. flickr. com/photos/rosenfeldmedia/3264852861 The Clif Bar logo.
Clif Bar has always strived to express its values through their products, policies, brand, and actions. In 2003, organic ingredients became important to the company and steadily since, these have made their way into all products (70 percent of all ingredients), some of which (like the Nectar bar) are entirely organic.
The company has also adopted sustainable principles in all of its operations, researching and developing new products, approaches, and policies toward these goals.
Clif Bar raises funds for charities and projects that fit its values, and a portion of each worker’s hours can be used to serve social and environmental needs. Recent goals seek to fight global climate change and even restore habitats and communities. These efforts include planting over 13,000 trees, volunteering to create houses for those in need, offsetting carbon in transportation, building windmills, and using biodiesel for shipping, where possible.
One thing that differentiates Clif Bar is its careful and “quiet” approach to declaring progress and making claims. It doesn’t advertise, and it doesn’t promote its sustainability agenda or progress in a sensational manner on its Web site or when it appears at events. Most of the sustainable messages travel via word-of-mouth or in news stories, although there is plenty of information available inside their Web site for those who look for it. This approach earns them deep credibility from customers who care, and it doesn’t appear to those who don’t care. It’s a decidedly appropriate way of targeting sustainable progress to those who care enough about the issues. To those who don’t, it’s simply a great-tasting bar.