Being a better corporate business has never been as challenging, or as important as it is now. Even small startups have to consider this as they begin building their brand. With major social drivers like globalization and climate change, the scope of environmental concerns has widened, and these new issues are starting to affect consumers purchasing decisions. This is good news for the small guys, as they can move quickly to implement new ideas on minimizing their environmental impact. But how these products and companies address consumer’s environmental concerns greatly affects how well the green products translate to market success.
What is greenwashing?
Everybody is rushing to position themselves as being “green”. Greenwashing can be as simple as changing the name of a product or picture to convey a more environmentally friendly image, like placing a few leafy trees on a bottle of environmentally damaging chemicals. Often times significantly more money and time is put into advertising green by companies than is actually invested in researching and implementing sustainable practices.
Be wary of this as you begin branding your company. Consumers are a savvy bunch and you want to be absolutely sure that whatever efforts you are undertaking are backed up by solid facts and research. If not, you look dishonest, or even worst, ignorant.
How to address greenwashing
Let your product’s benefits speak first and any environmental claim follow it up. Take for example the classic CFL light bulb. The first marketing message should not be this lightbulb will save 156 lbs of CO2 over its lifetime, but this lightbulb will save you $10-$20 a year for 5 years. How you frame the "green" benefits of your product and its relationship to the greater environment is key to the success of the marketing message, especially against similar products.
Even though consumers’ interest and education about the environment has increased, environmental concerns have not become the primary purchasing factor for consumers, but between two comparable products an environmental message can be an important tie breaker. Pounds of CO2 or drowning polar bears, do not resonate with every consumer but economic savings are appreciated by everyone. Whatever "green" message you do provide, should be authentic and seek to speak beyond your brand and not be simply a pretty picture or feel good message.
However, there is a fine line between too much information and not enough. For those consumers that really want to dig into your environmental efforts, consider setting up a separate page on your company’s website to fully explain your story and efforts. Such transparency only further adds credibility to your messaging.
Increasingly it is not what a company says, but what it does not say about its products that most affects its brand image. This means startups positioning themselves as green must be ready to address the benefits of its products, as well as the impacts and risks associated. Again, this a huge opportunity to out maneuver the big guys. An increased level of transparency with the customer has traditionally been viewed as a liability not an asset by corporate America. Startups can embrace this and form a relationship with the consumer based on honesty and open dialogue. Remember, this is the day of the empowered consumer, who with a blog and a passionate audience can take down a company in a matter of a few days.
One way companies have started to disclose more of their inner workings, is in Corporate Social Responsibility Reports (CSR). CSR reports present a larger picture about where a company stands in relation to social and environmental issues, what programs, goals, and initiatives a company has undertaken and the success or failures of each. CSR reports are the first place most media and concerned consumers look to see if a companies environmental claims can be substantiated, since an effective CSR report has a greater level of knowledge and transparency about products and operations than can be conveyed on a product. The most recognized reporting format is the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). GRI is used by thousands of companies, government organizations and non-profits who conducttheir CSR reports based on GRI's "Sustainability Reporting Framework." If you want to get an idea of what a sustainable company should look like, look at GRI's guidelines and see the scope of environmental and social reporting guidelines. For a sample of CSR reports look at CSRwire.com, which reports whenever a new company has published a CSR report.
A startup’s image and brand recognition takes time. While greenwashing is a short term solution to a long term problem, the opportunity exists to build solid sustainable practices into your business and tell that story honestly to your customer. Bake this into your company from the beginning. Sweet Onion Creations launched with this in mind and we use it to differentiate ourselves from our competitors. Offering discounts for clients looking to do the right thing environmentally helps us put some skin in the game as well and prove we’re serious about doing something.
Realize this green battle will not fought over the next three to five years time, not the next six months. Start somewhere relative, build up practices internally, establish communication channels for environmental practices beyond product messages, and always make sure the first leg your product or service stands on is its own leg. Then add that green leg when it is solid.