Beware of green marketing, warns Greenpeace exec


Posted at Sep 17 2008 12:25 AM | Updated as of Sep 17 2008 09:00 AM

Green is in. But according to Von Hernandez, Greenpeace executive director for Southeast Asia, the sudden “over-hyping” by the media of going green twists its message and turns environmentalism into a marketing tag, one worn by companies to rake in more revenues.

Hernandez, one of the speakers in the 15th National Public Relations Congress, which started Tuesday, explained that advertisements and public relations (PR) campaigns of corporations often do not show the whole picture.

“Going green is of course great,” he said, but it could also be “misleading.”

He explained that as companies come out with “green claims”, such as manufacturing “eco-friendly, biodegradable, recyclable” products, they gain a good image before the public even if their core businesses may be detrimental to the environment.


In environment-speak, Hernandez said that this is called “greenwashing.”

Greenwashing became a catchphrase in the 1980s after American environmentalist Jay Westerveld used it to criticize hotels which endorsed reuse of towels, but lacked concrete recycling strategies.

Greenwashing also happens when corporations parrot their environment programs with the end goal of earning profit.  

Hernandez said that companies which often resort to such claims are those which use “dirty energy” or those that depend on non-renewable resources.

He told that examples of these companies include cement manufacturers which boast of eco-friendly seals but do not change their harmful incineration processes, and companies that fund scholarships but manufacture harmful products.

Hernandez said PR practitioners help cloak the errors of green programs by playing up environment-friendly labels to get the consumers’ stamp of approval.

“In a recent Newsweek report, an environment watchdog investigated 1,018 products which have green claims. Ninety-nine percent or 1,017 turned out to be false,” he warned.

He also decried instances when corporations actually spend more on PR campaigns and advertisements than on their environment projects.

American Dream

Hernandez added that manipulative media promotion has become more precarious in the face of the climate change threat as fossil fuel-dependent corporations use PR to lobby against legislation on renewable energy.

Aside from this, advertisements also harp on the “American dream,” encouraging excessive consumption, which leads not only to the depletion of resources, but also to bigger carbon emission.

“The American way of life is romanticized as the American dream,” he said.

The American way of life, he explained, means energy wastage. “The carbon footprint of  North Americans is 32 times greater than the carbon footprint of the people from the global south,” he said.

If everybody would live like Americans, the earth would not be able to sustain humanity’s needs in 50 years.

“We would need another planet to live on,” he stated.

He advised PR and advertising firms to burst the consumerism bubble by “catalyzing policy reforms.”

He said that PR practitioners could use their lobbying power to force policymakers to legislate penalties against entities that refuse to cut back their use of dirty energy, and to mandate corporations to develop and fund technologies for renewable energy.

He also urged PR firms to show the big picture of their clients’ environment programs.

“Let’s strive for truth and accountability,” he said.
He shared that companies are actually amenable to support more sustainable environmental programs. He cited the case of Unilever, which called for a moratorium on deforestation in Indonesia, and Apple, which removed toxic chemicals from their latest line of iPod.

Integrate green policies

Jones Campos, president of the Public Relations Society of the Philippines (PRSP), which organized the PR Congress, said that Hernandez’s observations are “valid.”

He admitted that there are companies which lack “strategic” PR programs for environment, adding that those who greenwash only employ “tactical” PR mechanisms.

“Companies should be more substantive in the way they implement and formulate their programs,” he said.

He added that the best way to go for corporations is to integrate environmental protection in their core business.

Meanwhile, to prevent PR practitioners from falling in the rabbit hole of green corporate ploys, Campos said that PRSP conducts free consultation and strengthens dialogue among its members.

He also has this piece of advice for his colleagues in the business: “PR should be long-term. It should not be pabalat-bunga.”

On the other hand, former PRSP head Roel Ramirez said that “PR should be able to stir the consciousness of management.”

He explained that the knee-jerk reaction of companies with large carbon footprints is to shield their environmental sins with trivial green programs.

He said that it is the “job” of the PR firms to look into these and educate the corporations against adopting mere firefighting measures.

“PR is the conscience of the company,” he said.