Despite countless indicators that today's "battered consumer" is seeking deep discounts and shopping for necessities only, consumer demand for environmentally friendly products is on the rise, according to National Geographic and Globescan's 2009 Greendex survey of consumers in 17 countries.

At the same time, consumers are becoming more frustrated with the green messages that frequently accompany these products—many of which are perceived as misguided, unsubstantiated, or, worst of all, just “noise.” In other words, the messages are construed as "greenwash."

The combination of consumer demand for green products and consumer mistrust of information about those products means that companies today need to make sure they are both achieving significant, positive environmental impact and communicating those impacts accurately and effectively. Simply saying, "Trust us, we're green!" is not enough.

BSR's new report, "Understanding and Preventing Greenwash: A Business Guide," cowritten with U.K.-based Futerra, helps companies understand where they fall in the "greenwash matrix" (see "Types of Greenwash" sidebar), and how they can move toward effective communications that align with the true impacts of their company's environmental initiatives.

While some companies put valid efforts into sustainability initiatives, others put out empty claims, and the effectiveness of their communications varies widely. According to our report, a framework that incorporates impact, alignment, and communication can help companies stop greenwashing and begin using effective environmental communications.

Impact: Making Sure It's Real

Your sustainability practices or products must be based on real, significant environmental impact. If the underlying objective behind an environmental initiative is to improve corporate reputation or goodwill and not to address environmental impact, you’re likely to be accused of greenwash. If you’ve invested more resources into communicating about the activity rather than investing in the activity itself, you may not have any significant environmental impact that is worth communicating.

Key questions to evaluate impact:

  1. Is the issue material to your business?
  2. Have you already achieved the results in your claim?

Alignment: Building Internal and External Support

An initiative with significant impact must be aligned with multiple functions throughout the company—including strategy, procurement, design, government affairs, and marketing. The best way to check the integrity of the initiative is with a credible third party. External stakeholders can often be the canaries in the coal mine and alert you to additional perspectives that would otherwise be difficult for you to see.

Key questions to evaluate alignment:

  1. Have you worked with other departments within your company?
  2. Are other activities in your company consistent with the message?
  3. Have you engaged with stakeholders and incorporated their feedback?

Communication: Making Accurate Claims

Focus on clarity and transparency without using a self-aggrandizing tone, and make sure any external communications agencies you’re working with understand these principles as well. Even if the claim represents the environmental impact accurately, if consumers do not understand the claim, the message is ineffective. Along the same lines, the importance of data to back up claims cannot be understated. Data also enable you to measure performance against objectives and set a baseline for future improvement.

Key questions to evaluate communication:

  1. Do you have data to back up your claim?
  2. Is it easy for people to understand your claim and its significance?
  3. Are you focusing on one attribute while ignoring knock-on effects of others?

As the one-year anniversary of the global financial crisis draws near, this is a critical period for redefining the role of business in society. Trust in corporations has plummeted, and that trust will either be rebuilt or continue its downward trend.

Companies today are eager to demonstrate that they are part of the solution—to global warming, to declining ecosystem function, or to keeping toxic chemicals out of our children's products. But as long as consumers struggle sorting out legitimate environmental claims from among the misguided and unsubstantiated noise of competing messages, companies risk accusations of greenwash. You have the opportunity to set the record straight and offer communication that is clear, contextualized, and genuinely related to environmental restoration.