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Small Business Week Special: Green Marketing

By Debbie Lawes |

Beware of shortcuts when it comes to green marketing

It's never been a better time to promote your company's "green" credentials. In fact, for many industries it's become a prerequisite for attracting and retaining customers, employees and suppliers.

But beware: Consumers have already become quite adept at spotting questionable green marketing claims and won't hesitate to out your misdeeds through social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

"You can get the word out for virtually no money and instantaneously through social networking, and that puts the onus on companies to be more transparent and more honest," says Jed Goldberg, President of Earth Day Canada. "Those that aren't will be struggling with damage control."

A recent study by the Conference Board of Canada predicts that green corporate and marketing strategies will be the most important source of competitive advantage for companies in the future. At the same time, the report warns that consumers have become sceptical of the term "green."

To avoid even the perception of greenwashing, the Conference Board study says companies should partner with credible organizations or, where possible, seek quality certifications which offer concrete, measurable performance standards.

There are a growing number of companies and organizations that will help small companies assess their environmental footprint and recommend ways to reduce it.

Climate Smart Businesses of Vancouver works with partners to offer a training, software and technical support program that is organized and priced to fit into small business owners' do-it-yourself ethic. It recently partnered with BDC Consulting on a new "Lean and Green" pilot program that will help companies incorporate 'lean' thinking and environmentally sound strategies into their operations.

"We emphasize the business case for reducing carbon: that cutting emissions is not separate, but directly related to cutting operational costs of doing business, whether you're travelling for business, delivering product, running a facility, or choosing your suppliers," Climate Smart President Elizabeth Sheehan says.

One of its trainees, Sunrise Soya, installed a boiler economizer at its tofu manufacturing facility in Vancouver to capture and re-use waste heat. Combined with other process changes identified in the course of its greenhouse gas reduction program, the company expects to save up to $22,000 annually in natural gas costs.

Adding meat to your green message

Goldberg cringes when companies make false, confusing or meaningless claims in an effort to attract customers with marketing fluff rather than sincere efforts at environmental sustainability. He recalls the aerosol product claiming to be CFC-free, an ozone-depleting chemical that was banned over 20 years ago. Then came the "green" disposable plastic lighters.

"Canada doesn't have many legal or regulatory constraints on companies that are greenwashing, so it's pretty much buyer beware," says Goldberg, whose non-profit organization has been on the frontlines of educating consumers about greenwashing.

Michel Bergeron, Vice President, Corporate Relations at the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), says it's not only customers that companies should worry about alienating. Greenwashing can also tarnish your credibility with suppliers. For example, an increasing number of large retailers now require their suppliers to measure the environmental impact of their goods as part of a new green labelling program, akin to nutritional labels on food.

Not living up to your environmental claims could also trigger a backlash from employees, and diminish your company's ability to hire and retain top talent. Bergeron says human resources considerations were among the main drivers behind BDC's decision to ramp up its environmental practices.

"What we're seeing among our employees, is that corporate social responsibility is important to them," says Bergeron. "If your company doesn't measure up, they'll often look elsewhere."

Bergeron says the first step to a truly green marketing strategy is to understand the environmental impact of your activities. Step two is taking action to reduce that impact. Step three: tell your story.

"Be sure there is substance and real action behind your message. A reputation takes many years to build, but it can be lost in minutes."

Green Marketing Tips

  • Demand for green products is growing but doesn't guarantee success.
  • Green products must be able to compete with conventional products.
  • Be careful not to expose yourself to greenwashing charges.
  • Support your green claims with independent certification.
  • Not all products are appropriate for green marketing-choose carefully.
  • You don't have to be completely green, as long as you can show commitment.
  • Green practices are good business in and of themselves and enhance the company's image.

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