Green marketing should avoid political and CSR “sideshows”

Brands looking to push their green credentials should not be distracted by political or CSR “sideshows”, according to environmental experts.

Both Labour and the Lib Dems today (April 26) announced their ‘green manifestos’, but businesses were warned not to wait around for government hyperbole to become positive action before pushing their sustainability agenda.

Environmentalists are labelling this “the last parliament that can save the world from dangerous levels of climate change”. A new guide published by PR experts at Ogilvy and Cranfield University calls for similar urgency from UK Plc.

“If a business wishes to portray itself as a responsible citizen, it shouldn’t wait to see what happens when pressure from these three sources comes bearing down at thunderous speed. It should act now, and move ahead of compliance,” says Ogilvy PR London’s senior director Ross Cathcart.

“I believe there is a fairly narrow window of opportunity for people who work for major corporations. 2010 is the year when corporate communications directors can decide how and where they will invest in sustainable activities,” he adds.

The new guide includes advice on how to make CSR communication work, encouraging businesses to “talk about difficult issues and its efforts to resolve them”.

Examples of big brands being attacked or suffering consumer boycotts due to perceived failings in Corporate Responsibility include: Nestlé and palm oil; Crédit Agricole and its ‘green bank’ reference and Shell’s misleading claims over the company’s investment in green technology.

The latter involved a print ad that appeared in the Financial Times in February 2008, with the headline “We invest today’s profits in tomorrow’s solutions”. The ASA upheld two complaints by environmental group WWF that the Shell ad cited two examples of investment which were not environmentally sustainable.

Ogilvy’s guide warns: “The media has a way of reminding consumers about discrepancies long after they have apparently been forgotten. And don’t forget that NGOs are in many ways the keepers of the public conscience. They see it as their role to hold organisations to account for apparent or perceived transgressions.”

“It’s no good trying to insist that your organisation has one simple, straightforward CSR message … organisations need to prove continuously that all the little initiatives are adding up to a move in the right direction,” the guide says.

WWF’s head of business and industry Dax Lovegrove says firms that employ CSR as a sideshow to the main business are being “found out” and this approach is “becoming more and more of a liability than a business benefit”.

“Companies that wish to thrive in years to come will need to fundamentally shift the business in order that their natural resource use and carbon emissions are sustainable, staff and communities are treated fairly, policy-makers are engaged to forge smart regulation and customers are engaged on environmentally-sound promotions and products.”

The Government is currently reviewing its Green Claims Code to help businesses avoid greenwashing.

Alongside that, a new rule to stop marketers exaggerating the environmental benefits of their products will be introduced later this year as part of an overhaul of the advertising codes. An explicit rule to prevent what has been called “greenwashing” will be included in the non-broadcast code while an environmental claims section will be included in the broadcast code.

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