So many companies are jumping on the green bandwagon that its hybrid-driven axles are sagging. Businesses large, small and conceptual are crowding into the green marketplace, seeking ways to add more green to their bottom lines. Among the latest: If you enroll in its paperless statements program, Citibank will donate a tree on your behalf to the National Arbor Day Foundation (and, coincidentally, significantly reduce its administrative costs). In the process of careening toward green, however, a number of initiatives have taken on a drab shade when seen in the light of day.
The U.K. supermarket chain Tesco, for example, hit a pothole after announcing a "green plan" by which it promised to shrink its carbon footprint. Among other steps, it’s allowing customers to recycle paper-based food cartons in its stores and is displaying the carbon footprints of its products on labels. British media discovered, however, that Tesco has been shipping CDs and DVDs to Switzerland and then reshipping them back home as a scheme for avoiding a value-added tax. To save its customers a pound or two, it was generating many more pounds of emissions from transporting the disks.
Lexus also has hit some bumps in the road by producing the LS 600h L hybrid luxury vehicle as a muscle car that reportedly gets only 20 miles per gallon.
These paradoxical kinds of actions on the part of corporations increasingly are viewed as "greenwashing" by influential bloggers and journalists. Companies that rush to proclaim a green scheme must be committed to maintaining that program over time and need to think through all the ramifications of their processes to ensure that they truly are reducing pollution and/or energy use.
The blogging community is many things to many people, but few would contest that they routinely serve very effectively as a kennel of watchdogs identifying malfeasance, real or contrived, with remarkable alacrity. Just as conventional journalism emerged from the perceived need to keep a close eye on government and its officials, bloggers are gaining their reputation by focusing very sharply on the true actions of corporations, holding them to a high consumer standard with no tolerance for questionable green claims.
To ensure that your claims, green or otherwise, avoid the wrath of consumer-generated sites and the media, keep in mind:
- Earn consumer buy-in early. Provide previews and exclusive information to the online community and seek their input. The questions raised in response to your own blog posts and on the sites of influential watchdogs are your best sources of research. Address these questions in a serious and diligent manner to reassure consumers and the media. Likewise, ask for consumer input on the next steps they would like to see you take to advance your green program so that you gain allies even before you expand your efforts.
- Be as open as possible. In online conversations, don’t try to "spin" the benefits of your product or service. Be straightforward in declaring exactly what you believe your offering will do, how it will do it and how you will measure the results.
- Invite consumer groups and/or influential bloggers to your announcement event. Make them a part of your solution to reduce the chances of their later becoming part of the problem.
- Continue communicating after the initial announcement of your green plans. Report back to the media on the positive impact your program is having, on the growth of sales in your green arena and on comments you’ve received from customers.
- As your program rolls out, stake a claim. Become a part of the green infrastructure by promoting your program among your industry peers, at consumer events and in consumer publications. No one company or organization "owns" the green movement at this point. Take advantage of the opportunity to become a thought leader based on your own commitment and results.
- Always tell the truth. Exaggerated green plans or claims wither quickly under the heat of consumer and media scrutiny. Become a positive force against which the actions of other companies are measured.
— Eric Kushner