Category Archives: greenwashing

Forget about saving Earth; will tree planting help your company’s image?

Picture this. A CEO with muddied boots kneels down and gently inserts a small green seedling into the ground. Photographers snap away, onlookers clap politely, and journalists start scribbling furiously a few ideas for a smart headline.

The corporate frenzy for tree planting (tanam pohon in Indonesia) is still in full swing, but the question is: how can this kind of activity really make a difference for the environment and for your company’s green image?

(I had promised to write about tree planting in a previous post, and with a recent heated discussion on the subject flaring on the green living mailing list I help co-moderate, and actress/celebrity/jack-of-all-trades Luna Maya now planting trees for a cigarette company, now seems  a good time to talk about this.)

On the surface, tree planting seems like the easiest fruit to pluck from the CSR tree. You can associate it with the issue of climate change, it’s a relatively cheap activity, it shows visible results (at least in the short term, and especially if planting happens in a bare area), and it allows VIPs to get their hands dirty and be pictured doing the right thing.

And as the Luna Maya story has illustrated in the past week, it can also generate considerable media coverage, strengthening your brand.

But as this blog keeps ranting on (and on) about, too many companies are not aware of the risks they face when sticking to safe, predictable and short-term environmental CSR activities that promote image over substance.

The truth is, many of these tree planting activities are one-off events, with seedlings promptly forgotten once the show is over.

According to a source, in West Java, an IDR 25 billion tree planting programme failed spectacularly, with only 10% of seedlings remaining one year later. Not the kind of news you want to see in the public media, especially when associated with your brand (by that time Luna Maya’s publicist won’t be returning your calls).

Now how about this?

  • Consider whether tree planting has anything to do with your business activities. I mean, if you’re selling stethoscopes, does it make any sense to sink part of your CSR or marketing budget into planting trees?
  • Now assuming you see a logical connection between your business and tree planting—let’s say you’re in the pulp and paper sector—what are you going to do to ensure that tree planting is actually delivering added value to the local ecosystem and to the people who live there? Think local income opportunities, educational benefits etc.
  • Collaborate with people who know about tree planting. Don’t buy the cheapest seedlings and plant them on the next available slope. Talk to specialists and partner with them. Engage with the local community and listen to their aspirations.
  • (“It sounds like a lot of work”. Yes, sustainability usually is, but you reap benefits further down the track. Honest.)

So let’s look at this again.

Your company has now developed a solid strategy for greening an area whose ecosystem will be greatly enhanced with new trees, and you have identified collaboration opportunities with local folks so that they can draw revenue from these trees.

Sounds like you’re good to go?

Not yet. If  you don’t have a budget set aside to regularly monitor and take care of the trees for the next few years, you’re just seeding failure, wasting resources and exposing yourself to some potentially nasty backlash once the seedlings wither and die, and people start taking notice. You may also hear the word greenwash. Hence the critical importance (notice the underlining?) of budgeting for this activity into the long-term.

Set? Now you can call Luna.


The great green marketing add-on!

Flip flops by CinOk, so let’s talk about flip flops. With companies falling over each other in their efforts to position their products to consumers as green (any product it feels), it is worth considering exactly what kind of green marketing we can expect to hit the tube, billboards and magazines in the years ahead across Southeast Asia. Let me illustrate.

Say that you are Irfan Damial, head of Marketing at Crazy Shoes, and that your CEO asks you to pitch your latest flip-flops as eco-friendly (“Yo Irfan, slap some green on that will you? That colour just sells!”). Yes, the same flip-flops you have been churning out at a rate of 1,700 sets per day for the past 16 years.

Well, Irfan, you don’t have that many options–either you come up with ludicrous claims (rubber is a natural element, hence our shoes are environment-friendly!) or you suggest to your boss that Crazy Shoes invests in serious R&D to reduce raw material use, packaging etc. Neither is going to take you very far (although an illuminated CEO should give you a raise for suggesting the second one.)

(Incidentally, this story may be partly true. I recently saw a pair of $1.5 ‘ecological friendly footwear’  at Carrefour on Sunset Road in Bali. If that’s not a sign that green marketing is entering mainstream I don’t know what is.)

Stories like this are likely to become increasingly more frequent. A survey released earlier this year of more than 370 marketing and advertising executives provides evidence that green marketing is increasingly popular–82% of survey respondents said they planned to use more green messaging in their marketing.

The big question here is, of that 82% how many will resort to giving their products the ‘green marketing add-on’ treatment (sic the flip-flop anecdote)? According to Terrachoice, more than 90% of products with green claims are greenwashing in the U.S. market. In less developed markets, there are reasons to think that this may be worse.

But the simple fact here is that if you don’t get the product right—in the way that only a good quality product with a small environmental footprint can—then no amount of green marketing is going to make your product ‘eco’. As green marketing guru Jacquelyn Ottman says, green marketers must take an extra step of managing the product’s life cycle impacts.

If you thought that marketing was tough, then selling environment-friendly goods just made the game a whole lot more complicated—but definitely more worthwhile.

Why a crackdown on greenwashing is good news for businesses

Green paint by jennifer l.If you can sell toll roads and disposable food boxes as green, there is no telling which product will get the same green treatment next. I’m thinking hamsters fed on organic food pellets.

This could  get dangerous.

It only takes a few alert consumers with a bent for mayhem to create a public relations disaster, with the marketing unit scrambling to figure out retrospectively what it was about the product that warranted environment-friendly messaging in the first place (picture this with the soundtrack of office phones ringing off their hooks as journalists try to get the scoop).

Now, the US Federal Trade Commission is tightening the screw as  it updates its environmental marketing guidelines for the first time since 1998. The agency’s Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, or Green Guides, define terms such as “recyclable” and “biodegradable” and explain how businesses should back up environmental assertions.

Now this is why this should come as good news to businesses. Part of the difficulty in promoting green products is the lack of standards, definitions and reference points. Under some definitions, some argue that any product with some organic ingredient qualifies as green. With the FTC’s souped up, 2010’d Guide, businesses can evaluate their products (do they qualify as recyclable? do we have enough data to demonstrate biodegradability?) and raise the bar.

The FTC’s revamped Green Guides are not a stick. They pave the way for all of us to start speaking the same language when we start defining green products.

Greenwashing in Indonesia: good or bad news?

More and more companies are making “green” claims in Indonesia, including some with a dubious reputation in terms of environmental governance. Overall, this is a good trend—companies want to capitalize on a green wave, and some are making genuine efforts to reduce their operational impact on the environment. The problem is, in the absence of green labels or consumer awareness, many companies are fooling their markets by making irresponsible claims about measures they claim to be taking. Here are my comments on this matter in the Jakarta Post.

Companies post glossy green claims to gain more profit

Prodita Sabarini ,  The Jakarta Post ,  Jakarta   |  Wed, 01/06/2010 10:56 AM  |  City

It starts from here: A woman takes a picture of a poster depicting an ideal low-energy system for a house, on display at the Green Festival last year. The festival was criticized by Green Map Indonesia because it was sponsored by the Sinar Mas Group, a company that has come under the spotlight for alleged widespread deforestation.  JP/NurhayatiIt starts from here: A woman takes a picture of a poster depicting an ideal low-energy system for a house, on display at the Green Festival last year. The festival was criticized by Green Map Indonesia because it was sponsored by the Sinar Mas Group, a company that has come under the spotlight for alleged widespread deforestation. JP/Nurhayati

A fancy five-star hotel gives guests the choice to infrequently change towels because it’s environmentally friendly. A property development dons a big banner reading it’s a “green project” because it’s planting trees.

Or a supermarket claims it is environmentally friendly by selling reusable grocery bags.

Don’t be fooled.

As the globe warms and the issue of environment becomes more prominent, producers in Jakarta
are claiming to be green to win customers.

There is an increasing practice of “greenwashing,” where companies market products and services using misleading or false environmental claims.

The term greenwashing is taken from whitewashing, meaning to hide, cover or conceal unpleasant facts and details, or manipulate.

“It’s misleading. They’re smart because they take advantage of the feel-good factor.

“But the foundations don’t change,” architecture lecturer and green activist Elisa Sutanudjaja said.

Elisa said property developers used this method. She said developers proclaimed they were green because they planted trees. This was not enough, according to Elisa.

For properties to make green claims, constructions should be energy efficient, areas should support public transport and there should be water catchment areas, among others.

Elisa said that a property developer from the Green Building Council Indonesia was developing an elite housing complex in former unused land in North Jakarta.

The properties have basements connecting to each other, Elisa said. “It used to be land that could absorb water. The basements will impact on water-catchment areas, which contributes to flooding,” she said.

Other greenwashing methods are sponsoring green events such as replanting mangrove forests, but not changing production practice to be more environmentally friendly.

Komunitas Greenlifestyle volunteer Marc-Antoine Dunais said the abundance of “green” messages was positive.

“It means companies consider ‘green’ a selling point for their products and services, providing an opportunity to improve corporate practices, reducing environmental impacts and changing consumer behavior.

“The devil, as usual, is in the details,” he said.

He said that greenwashing was a problem because it abuses consumer trust and reduces incentives for other companies to make honest, credible environmental claims.

“Most importantly, it gives consumers the illusion that there is some kind of ‘go green’ revolution and our environment is better for it,” he said.

“Yes, there is a ‘green’ information revolution, but we should be looking at results.

“Is there less waste and pollution? Are ecosystems in better conditions? Is there more environmental justice?

“These are the questions we need to be asking, especially as we are in a jurisdiction where there is no ‘watchdog’ agency to monitor green claims and make companies accountable,” he said.

A group called Indonesia Bergerak (Indonesia Move) said that it’s currently attempting to create a consumers’ movement for products that promote sustainability and social justice.

“We’re pushing forward because we realize that consumers need to be active in making change,” Indonesia Bergerak chief Tejo Wahyu Djatmiko said.

The group is publishing a bi-monthly free magazine on “green” consumption. Tejo said the group wanted to encourage ethical consumers. “Our consumerism is on a dangerous level. It’s driven by want, not need,” he said.

Indonesian Consumer Protection Foundation (YLKI) chairman Husna Zahir said consumers should be more aware about their right to be informed.

Indonesian Center For Environmental Law Rino Subagyo said it was possible to sue companies that made false environmental claims on their products. Husna said there should be a body that could rate whether a product was in line with their “green” claims.

In the US, there are organizations that provide an index on greenwashing. Indonesia does not.
Husna said consumers currently understand their rights to safe products, but they did not understand their rights to products produced sustainably. “This needs to change,” she said.