By Kurt Johnson
As green and sustainable services, projects and products continue to multiply, so too does the competition in differentiating a business’s services and products to attract and maintain clients. While many legitimate businesses are true innovators, a side effect of doing green business is the “greenwashing” that often takes place. These often false claims of being “green” are done in order to take advantage of a relatively new marketing angle, to appear trendy, to appeal to a certain demographic, and to take credit when credit is not due with no real green commitment to the service or product. Generic green claims, logos, and ads crowd the marketplace. The benefits of green building, services or products are taking a back seat to the initial “wow” factor and aesthetic. Many businesses self-certify their services or products as green, ignoring the more stringent, accurate and unbiased measurement of a respected third party certifier.
Many customers/clients, builders and contractor’s eyes will glaze over at the mere mention of green or LEED certification. To them, sustainability still suffers from the false reputation of extremely high initial cost with no immediate return and dubious long-term benefits. Jaded attitudes can be dismissive of some great leaps forward in technology. Why spend the money in this challenging economic climate when traditional methods can be had for cheap and clients face budget problems?
The economic benefits of green building are gaining ground. A 2007 McGraw Hill study noted the top two firm motivators for building green. Both were rated as equal in importance: 1. Lowering lifecycle costs with energy efficiency and productivity increases, and 2. Being part of an industry that values the environment. Other motivators include a decreased operating cost, increased building value, an improvement in return on investment, increased occupancy and higher rents. A hidden motivator is the fear of doing nothing. Corporate leaders realize that ignoring green building will lead to public relations problems. McGraw Hill’s 2007 study also indicates that 40% of architecture, engineering and construction (A/E/C) firms are more than moderately involved in green building, 86% of A/E/C firms participate in green building activities, and 60% of A/E/C firms specify green building products.
A marketplace crowded by green claims necessitates a new way of marketing, focusing not only on building innovations and third-party certifications, but marketing them as a Quality Project or Product.
The Quality Service, Project or Product
A Quality Service, Project or Product is built to a better standard, or built in a fashion that differs from the norm, yet offers economic and environmental benefits. An example is a properly insulated home. Current code typically ignores areas that are susceptible to air flow or heat transfer. A properly sealed home can account for a 40% or higher cost savings on your heating bill and ensures better year-round comfort for its inhabitants.
A Quality Service, Project or Product represents a higher return on investment. As initial costs drop, so too does the waiting period for client benefits. Some of these benefits are immediate, such as buildings that are a more attractive place to work or a product that guarantees immediate energy cost savings. When it comes to “the bottom line”, a Quality Service, Project or Product is more universally marketable when its economic benefits are made apparent to builders, manufacturers, clients and investors.
A Quality Service, Project or Product is attractive to the buyer, as composition of materials and design are built with an awareness of health, position and personal benefit. A Quality Service, Project or Product provides for better air quality for its end users. Low-VOC (volatile organic compound) products and properly ventilated spaces provide for healthier living and working environments. Sick days are reduced, and so is your company’s exposure to air quality litigation.
A Quality Service, Project or Product nurtures a sense of community and location, as local, native materials or landscaping connect with us better than the often out of place and generic materials shipped from overseas or elsewhere.
A Quality Project provides ready access to public transportation and pedestrian-friendly design combined with integrated mixed-use planning – or developments where you can live, work and play within the same 5-mile radius. Traditional grid road design produces fewer emissions while encouraging walking and bicycling.
It is important to maintain language that highlights sustainable features, however, as your green service, projects and products become associated with quality, make sure your marketing collateral reflects the subtle changes to the language. Consider branding your project as quality-built, stressing quality of materials and quality-of-life benefits. Show the buyer how they will benefit from design choices focused on quality as well as the cost savings and efficiencies resulting from that design.
The Seven Sins of GreenwashingTM
False claims can get you in trouble! Published and trademarked by Terrachoice Environmental Marketing (sinsofgreenwashing.org), “7 Sins…” refers to the common ways that companies mislead in their advertising and marketing claims. Avoid these sins in your marketing efforts!
1. Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off – Suggesting a product is “green” without considering other important environmental issues, such as greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing and transport.
2. Sin of No Proof – A claim that can’t be substantiated by third-party certification. An example is a product claiming a percentage of recycled content without evidence.
3. Sin of Vagueness – A claim likely to be misunderstood. An example is “all-natural”. Naturally-occurring poisons like arsenic or mercury can be considered “all-natural”, but not necessarily “green”.
4. Sin of Worshiping False Labels – Fake labels appearing to give a legitimate third-party endorsement. Fakes usually are mad to closely resemble real logos so they can easily fool a buyer.
5. Sin of Irrelevance – A claim that is unimportant or obvious, such as being “CFC-free”. CFCs are banned by law, so no product contains CFCs.
6. Sin of the Lesser of Two Evils – An attempt to district from the greater environmental impact of a product, e.g. fuel-efficient sport-utility vehicles or organic cigarettes.
7. Sin of Fibbing – Outright lies and false claims. Products claiming to be certified or registered that are not.
Only Sell When You’re Ready
Don’t brand your service/projects/products as green, sustainable or quality without thoroughly backing up your claims. Your service, project or product should have an electronic “paper trail” of relevant certifications and accurate date, which should be included or referenced in your marketing collateral. Not only do clients appreciate quality, they appreciate honesty.