by: Joel Makower

I've spent the past few weeks on the road talking about the State of Green Business, listening to the questions and concerns of audiences at the companies and conferences I've addressed. There's one constant query: In a world gone green, how does a company make itself heard, credibly and authentically? And how does it do this in a way that minimizes the risks of being charged with greenwash, or worse?

The questions themselves represent a sea change. For years, companies have been satisfied to walk more than talk -- that is, do more, environmentally speaking, than they'd publicly disclose. It's not that these companies were being virtuous, or that they didn't care about the world knowing of their green commitments and achievements. Far from it. But the corporate risks of sticking one's neck out, calling attention to what a company is doing right, often unwittingly illuminates environmental problems about which the public wasn't aware. (You're using 10% organic cotton? Why? Oh, because growing cotton requires intensive pesticides, harming groundwater, farmworkers, and wildlife? Gee, why only 10%? Why not 20%?)

So, being humble was a virtue. Of course, companies maintained hoped that some enterprising reporter or activist would catch them in the act of being good and lead to positive press or word of mouth. It happened from time to time, but not often enough.

Now things are changing. As the conversation has ratcheted up in recent months, being quiet is no longer an asset. Companies are being pressed to talk about what they're doing -- and not doing -- by customers, employees, investors, activists, and others. Previously reclusive companies are rethinking their taciturn strategies.

Suffice to say, shyness isn't something that becomes a lot of companies, many of which have no problem shouting their stories from the rooftops. Some of these stories are worthy of attention; many aren't. Unfortunately, there's no correlation between signal and noise, as a recent study by the U.K. firm Genesys Conferencing found out:

U.K. companies are failing to match fine words with positive action in implementing green policies throughout the business, with fewer than one third of respondents believing that they are moving strongly or very strongly to adopting 'green' policies in their organisations.

"Visitors to any company's website today are almost certain to find a stated commitment to the environment," says Jerona Noonan, sales director, Genesys Conferencing.  "Yet, as this survey shows, to-date in most businesses this has not been put into practice in the form of positive environmental initiatives.

The need to align the walk-talk ratio has caught the attention of those in the business of helping companies tell their stories. They, in turn, are sharing their insights with the rest of us. A sampling of what's crossed my in-box in recent weeks:

  • A new report on Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability Communications (Download -- PDF) from the PR firm Edelman covers the CSR landscape, explaining how employees and socially responsible investors increasingly drive companies' communications strategies, though these same stakeholders often criticize companies for the difficulty they have in communicating with companies on CSR issues. The report, based on a survey of companies, investors, and NGOs, cites case studies from Chiquita, Gap, IKEA, JPMorgan, Reuters, Timberland, and others.


  • Bite PR this month published a report on Greenwashing (Download -- PDF), subtitled "A Perfect Storm," where, it maintains, "environmental impacts, public interest, media attention, and public policy combine to rapidly heighten skepticism and challenge the grand corporate environmental gestures of 2006 and 2007." To say nothing of 2008 and beyond. That greenwashing itself is a moving target "has created a threatening backdrop for ecologically conscious [company] efforts," it states. It counsels authenticity and describes four steps companies need to climb up the "leadership ladder" to garner green legitimacy "while preempting greenwashing threats."


  • Marketing agency EcoAlign has published an "EcoPinion Survey" entitled The Green Gap: Communications and Language (Download here -- registration required), based on a survey of U.S. citizenry. The survey

    confirms the existence of a green gap between the communications and language commonly used by companies and stakeholders in the energy and environment space and customers' understanding, acceptance and perceptions of value around terms such as energy efficiency, energy conservation, demand response, smart energy and clean energy. The green gap in communications contributes to a growing misalignment between customers' stated intentions, e.g., their desire to be more green or frugal with energy consumption, and their actual behavior

    Translation: When it comes to energy and environment, companies don't speak to consumers in a language they understand, undermining green behavior.

    For example, most consumers can't articulate the difference between the "energy conservation" and "energy efficiency" and only one in three Americans understands the term "smart energy." Four in ten don't know what "demand response" refers to (and the rest are probably lying -- it's pretty geeky terminology).

  • And then there's Getty Images, which recently published its annual MAP Report on Going Green (cost is $750, but free excerpts here -- PDF). The study attempted to look at the images that most resonate with consumers on environmental topics. Getty assessed 2,500 advertising campaigns from last year and concluded that many of the conventional images used to promote green campaigns were in danger of becoming visual clichés. Getty also surveyed consumers about which shade of greens they most associated with the environment, showing them four samples: forest, kelly, olive, and lime. For what it's worth, forest green won, hands down. (I interviewed Getty's Denise Waggoner on the topic a few months ago for GreenBiz Radio, which you can listen to here.)

    What does it all mean? The sum of all of these reports is pretty clear: Talking the green talk is no simple matter, what with the lack of definitions, the high expectations, and the countless critics and watchdogs ready to pounce if you don't get it right. The public is hungry for companies to look up to, but they don't trust what they hear. Like an oft-spurned lover, they are cautious and wary of being seduced -- though always hoping that this time it just might be the real deal.
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