Thomas Kolster is the author of Goodvertising, founder of the Goodvertising Agency and the world's first collaborative communication platform dedicated to sustainability, WhereGoodGrows.
Here he highlights the dangers of the word greenwashing, and offers sustainability and advertising examples that are working towards positive social change.
Allow me to introduce you to a monster. It’s the most dangerous catchphrase in the modern marketing landscape. It’s stopping us from pushing the brands we work for into a sustainable, responsible and ultimately profitable future. Its name is greenwashing.
Green-washing, green-washing, greenwashing. The word burns neon-bright over every corporate’s desk, and it’s spreading fear in every corporate hallway and agency corridor across the globe.
Common knowledge seems to be it’s better to stay silent about any good the company is doing. We self-censor, when instead we should be speaking up – not only because it makes brands look good but also because it shows people that brands can and should be doing good.
I’ll argue that greenwashing can actually be good for people and planet – and that we should maybe think twice before we witch hunt those companies taking their first nervous steps in a greener direction. We should rather concentrate on legally punishing those who say green, while actively lobbying for the opposite.
Look at the advertising landscape today, 99% of the messages out there still say: consume more. That’s half a trillion dollars spent every year to tell us, 'Shop ‘til you drop!'. How will we ever change our mind-set when that’s what we’re being told with such force and conviction?
Would you stand the greenwashing test? Yes, you might be cycling to work or driving a Prius, but five minutes later you’re boarding a plane to the Maldives; raising the sea levels and slowly drowning the very palm-dotted island chain you’re visiting.
The correlation between saying and doing is a complicated matter. I can’t help thinking about all the complaints about Al Gore flying in a private jet to do his talks – is that really what’s going to stop us making the world better for you, me and future generations?
We shouldn’t forget that these companies are more than what they do – they have a massive voice impact in our lives. When Coca-Cola is using their cans to talk about 'Saving the Arctic', that campaign alone is probably worth the same voice impact as five years of Greenpeace campaigning.
That doesn’t make Coca-Cola a saint, but what it does do is inform a mass-market about an important issue. Voice impact matters. And it’s not a black and white matter; look at it like more of a pantone rainbow palette of green colours.
Think of McDonald’s in Denmark, who launched a program to get children to read more. They used their child-magnet, the Happy Meal, and instead of distributing a plastic fantastic toy, they gave away a children’s book by an acclaimed children’s book writer: Kim Fupz Aakeson.
When Kim was visiting McDonald’s HQ he asked them how many copies they would print. To get an idea of a benchmark, a best-selling children’s book in Denmark sells 2,000 copies. I can almost see the smile on the marketing exec’s face as she answered: 300,000! That’s 300,000 less useless plastic figures and 300,000 more copies of educational children’s literature. What sounds better to you?
Is it really so bad that companies are earning money while doing good? We can’t all be Mother Theresas and instead we should try to be a little more like Bono or Branson.
If we’re not leaving the capitalistic market model any time soon it’s still money that moves the markets and most of the time this also affects your day-to-day shopping decisions too.
Today, consumers value (and demand) companies delivering value back to them. Today, investors value companies doing good over companies that are not readying themselves for a sustainable future.
Do you stay silent out of fear of your voice backfiring, do you speak up for an attractive, healthier, funnier, sustainable future waiting around the corner – or do you continue with business as usual?
It is my opinion that we don’t need the word 'greenwashing'. Today, you and I can kill it, bury it, and we can all move on.
When consumers hear 'Save the World' more than 'Consume the World' the environment and our common good win, and if done honestly and transparently, the brand behind that voice wins as well.
D&AD Impact seeks to identify and celebrate great, transformative ideas that contribute towards a better, fairer and more sustainable future for all. If you think you have a campaign that makes a real and positive difference to the world then why not enter it into D&AD Impact.
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