As kick-off speaker of this month's Sustainable Brands Conference in Monterey, Calif., green marketing expert Jacquelyn Ottman told colleagues that greenwashing — the most despised of all green marketing sins — is only the surface symptom of a much larger problem in her industry.
Marketers and scholars alike position greenwashing as the bane of sustainable business, but Ottman's experience advising Fortune 500 companies and the government revealed there is even greater danger in letting greenwashing publicity discredit the green movement altogether.
"If we keep making such a big deal about greenwashing," explained Ottman at the Sustainable Brands Conference, "we're going to undermine the potential for green marketing — one of the only tools we have for shifting the economy toward greener goods."
Treating the cause, not the symptom
After founding the New York City-based J. Ottman Consulting
in 1989 and writing four books on sustainable business, Ottman has realized greenwashing itself isn't her industry's root problem. Rather, it is the lack of innovation causing greenwashing in the first place. Greenwashing, she says, is the byproduct of sluggish progress in a world of rapidly changing consumer needs. Most companies don't innovate at the same speed they communicate about the green movement, and this leads to inconsistency of corporate messages.
A leading cause of these inaccurate green messages, then, is lack of "eco-innovation." As defined in Ottman's new book "The New Rules of Green Marketing
," eco-innovation involves new models, new materials and new technologies that help products interact with consumers and the environment in entirely new ways. Essentially, it is innovating at the concept stage of a product rather than merely changing surface qualities.
Making this distinction for trade audiences is essential. Many corporate green campaigns do no more than shave off waste from existing processes. There are also those reactive companies that simply clean up their messes with green PR. These efforts can actually have positive impact on the environment, but they don't make the changes in consumer habits necessary for longterm improvement. Instead, Ottman says companies must seek fundamentally new ways for products and services to relate to the environment.
Too much limelight for greenwash
Meanwhile, Ottman recognizes how harmful backlash against green marketers can stifle progress just as much as greenwashing itself.
"Greenwash brings negative press to our industry," says Ottman. "The potential risk associated with greenwash prevents businesses from talking about their legitimate achievements and holds them back from much needed investment in greener technologies."
Ottman believes that positioning every greenwashing instance as an inevitable sign of corruption can disillusion conscious consumers over time. Considering that consumers are skeptical of exaggerated advertisements from all other industries as well, she says treating greenwashing differently will gradually discredit the green market's potential.
Supporting versus scolding
Instead, Ottman suggests it is more productive to celebrate successes in eco-innovation than to over-publicize green marketing failures. By facilitating positive, proactive communications, she encourages companies to think outside the box — or eliminate the box altogether. Her new book reveals impressive eco-innovators already reducing waste and emissions in fundamentally new ways.
The Japanese company Soladey, for instance, invented a toothbrush that eliminates the need for toothpaste with its photocatalytic titanium dioxide rod that breaks down plaque upon contact with light. Makers of the gDiaper designed a disposable, flushable inner lining for their cloth diapers, thereby avoiding excessive waste and sanitation issues simultaneously. Coke's new "Plant Bottle" uses up to 30 percent plant-based materials, which may set precedents for future food and drink containers made from bioplastics.
Eco-innovators start from the drawing board. They go beyond reduction of harmful packaging and invent entirely new packaging instead, as seen with the makers of bioplastics. They go beyond reducing impact and actually reverse impact instead, as seen by the BASF PremAir ozone catalyst for car radiators that converts 80 percent of ground-level ozone into oxygen. Eco-innovators may even realize a product can become a service that facilitates repeated use, such as Zipcar's car sharing model.
Moving sustainability forward
Ottman encourages both marketers and consumers to view green marketing dialogue in a new light. As media members perpetuate negative dialogue and companies stand on shallow claims, she tells proponents of the green movement to ask themselves "which people are trying to solve the real problem instead of just treating symptoms? Which people are really promoting innovation?" She believes distinguishing and promoting the true innovators will ultimately establish precedents that move sustainability forward.
As Ottman positions eco-innovation as a way to reduce inputs and increase consumer confidence, it is likely she will prompt such progress, turning greenwashing risk into lucrative opportunities for a new generation of eco-innovators.