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As Earth Day approaches, dig into companies’ green claims

walmart green

By Flickr user Walmart Stores

Earth Day 2011 is a week from today, and it’s not just for environmental writers any more.

Increasingly, corporate marketing, PR, charitable and image-building events are built around the annual commemoration, now in its fifth decade.  In conjunctions with alternative fuel searches, the growing green-collar jobs sector, quests for energy savings and other issues, businesses are immersed in eco-conscious issues, and this is good opportunity to explore them and the relevance or veracity of green claims.

Consumers are taking note of green claims by businesses but often are misunderstanding them, according to the 2011 Cone Green Gap Trend Tracker report, released March 28 by the Boston-based Cone research group.  And, the study finds, consumer ire over what they feel are misleading or confusing claims can really backfire on companies.  Here’s the survey fact sheet; it includes some detailed information about how often shoppers say they consider green factors.

Large companies increasingly have been using eco-friendly themes and claims in their branding and advertising campaigns – Ford Motor Co. currently has Ed Begley Jr. touting electric vehicle technology, as seen in this YouTube video, for example.  Big business claims have lead to charges of  “greenwashing” or bloated/unfounded eco claims, as noted in this Sourcewatch article.

I’ve been rather wondering the same thing about small businesses, which seldom are the target of watchdog scrutiny but which increasingly are using similar marketing tactics.  Check around to see how it’s playing out in your region, especially as companies attempt to tie in to Earth Day celebrations.  And review business permits, state sales tax licenses and other documents to see if more entrepreneurs are choosing names that at least sound eco-friendly.

In my suburban area, for example, at least three resale/consignment gift and apparel shops have opened in the past year, each with the word “green” in their signage and logo – yet other than that they’re selling recycled products (and a few new ‘natural ingredient’ toiletries) I can’t find anything particularly green about their business models or practices.  Same for “organic;” as a journalist I’ve looked into claims using that word by lawn care companies which were (and this was verified by my state’s environmental agency) spraying the same toxic pesticides as the “chemical” lawn treatment firms.

And here’s a website domain promoter suggesting that adding terms like organic, eco and recycle to a company’s website name will reap benefits.

In a similar vein, here’s a neat USA Today story from last year about the irony of Earth Day giveaways that amount to little more than landfill-bound clutter; you might tally up the freebie offers in your area and ask a marketing expert to weigh in on the likely costs and benefits.  And as always, who benefits?  Firms like this maker of promotional products are actively marketing the notion of logoed “green” swag.

Meanwhile, check out the Reynolds Center’s April 19 free online seminar “Covering the Green Economy” by investigative reporter Russ Choma; he’ll teach you how to follow the green money trail on your beat.

About the Author

Veteran financial writer Melissa Preddy served as a business writer, editor and columnist for The Detroit News from 1995 to 2008, is a Michigan-based freelance journalist. She now works as a writer and editor for a medical research unit of the University of Michigan Medical School. Follow her daily posts. | E-mail: Melissa Preddy

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