Green claims are nothing to be scared of

A confession: I spent Christmas on a beach in Thailand, en route to a friend’s wedding in New Zealand. The trip – and the way I was able to justify it to myself – highlight the enormous barriers to tackling our flying behaviours. But one particular moment on the journey also brilliantly brought into focus a piece of work we’ve just had published by Defra.

Close examination of the in-flight menu on the Auckland to Bangkok leg (carbon footprint, 1.65 tonnes) revealed a curious piece of green marketing. A proud footnote declared that our airline – Thai Airways – had taken the trouble to calculate the carbon footprint of their two “signature dishes”. As a result, we knew that the chicken mussaman curry with steamed Thai rice had a CO2 equivalent footprint of 1.36kg per 250g serving, while the green curry was slightly higher, at 1.39kg.

Why had the airline done this? According to their dedicated PR website, it was because, “passengers can become more environmentally conscious when they are aware of the amount of greenhouse gases produced in the choice of meals offered in the menu.”

This is a truly horrible example of greenwash and one that our research suggests is likely to be counterproductive. According to Department for Transport figures, almost three quarters (72% in 2010) of consumers believe that aeroplanes are a major contributor to climate change. The flagrant hypocrisy of highlighting the GHG implications of an in-flight meal without mentioning the far greater impact of the flight itself immediately undoes any positive effect that might have been associated with the move.

This isn’t to say that carbon footprinting meals is a bad thing (though it would have been nice to see the whole menu treated the same way, rather than only two dishes), but brands need to be conscious of the way in which consumers will experience the claims they make.

The airline also appears to be placing responsibility on the passenger without any mention of steps the company itself may be taking to reduce its impacts. It’s possible that they have done this to avoid further highlighting the inherent contradictions in talking about the carbon impact of a meal while chowing through aviation fuel at 35,000 feet. And the more you think about the detail of the claim, the more peculiar it seems. The only way for me to consume an airline meal is to get on an aeroplane, so separating the meal from the flight is actually counter-intuitive – the flight is the product, of which the meal is just a component part.

Over and over again we’ve heard consumers in our research pick up on this type of double standard, and it doesn’t just have the potential to damage brands. If we are repeatedly exposed to claims that seem so obviously selective in the facts they choose to convey, our faith in all green claims is likely to be diminished.

With this in mind, Defra has recently revised its guidance to marketers on the use of green claims. It is, rightly in my mind, aspirational in content, setting out a vision for industry best practice. The practicalities of designing an effective marketing claim may mean that it is not always possible to follow the guidance to the letter, but the principles it outlines are fundamental to protecting and enhancing trust in environmental advertising.

The guidance, together with the research that informed it, also allows marketers to develop green claims with greater confidence. Many in the industry have told us of their “fear to tread” because of the threat of the media – or just blogs like this one – stringing them up for some hidden marketing misdemeanour.

But the rules are actually pretty simple. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if your product is known to be one of the most environmentally damaging on the planet, highlighting the impact of one tiny part of it while ignoring the rest is going to result in some negative reactions. Flights may be an extreme example, but for most products, not yet having a fix for all of your environmental impacts doesn’t prevent you from shouting about the successes you do have, so long as you don’t appear to be trying to hoodwink the consumer into thinking those other impacts don’t exist.

When done well, green claims can not only be good for your brand; they can also help drive pro-environmental behaviours more generally. The cumulative effect of companies shouting about their efforts to minimise their environmental impacts is to convey a powerful underlying message to consumers: carbon emissions are bad, and it’s good to do something about them. If we can make tackling emissions seem normal to people, it’s going to be much easier to take steps to tackle the really hard behaviours, like flying to New Zealand for a wedding.

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