How to make a good environmental claim

Nowadays, all sorts of products and services come with environmental claims. And most of the time, the people making the claims are quite sincere and honestly believe that their product or service is more eco-friendly than other comparable products. The problem is, some potential buyers may feel like it’s far less eco-friendly than advertised. This is a great example:

If you thought that this looks like a spaceport, you wouldn’t be very off the mark. It’s actually a proposal of a floating airport for London. The designers claim the environmental impact would be less than existing proposals as there would no need for land reclamation, night flights could be operated miles away from residential homes, and power would come via wind turbines located adjacent to the runways. I have no reason to believe the designers are being anything but absolutely sincere in their efforts to be eco-friendly, but somebody really ought to inform them that (a) airplanes use vast amounts of fuel and are big contributors to CO2 emissions (b) a few wind turbines next to the runway will be like a drop in a lake in comparison with the amount of energy used by those airplanes and (c) the sea is also another kind of environment, technically called a marine environment.

And don’t think it’s only big corporate projects that can make this sort of blunders. I know of a rather small company that, in all good faith, sells water in cartons in the honest belief that it’s eco-friendly. Forget that environmentalists still argue whether cartons or plastic bottles are worse, and that there are generally less facilities to recycle cartons than to recycle plastic bottles. The main problem with selling water in bottles or cartons as eco-friendly is that water is transported using less energy and far more cheaply in pipes than in bottles or cartons. If anyone is concerned about the quality of the water they get on the tap, there are filtering systems to suit everybody’s requirements.

How could you avoid putting yourself in that sort of situation? The last thing you want to do is to market something as a green product and become a pet example for activists of greenwashing. Thankfully, there are guides already written to help you make environmental claims correctly. In the UK, DEFRA has produced this very useful report:

In the USA, FTC has produced “Green guides” with plenty of details about how to market green products:

Since all these are rather long documents, I suggest here a few quick rules of thumb that will quickly put you on the right track:

  1. Be clear. Ask yourself why, exactly, you believe that your product or service is green. If you believe that a floating structure would be more environmentally friendly than a structure on land, research the issue and make sure that it is actually better! Once you are clear, you can explain this in your marketing materials.
  2. Be accurate. Whenever possible, provide accurate measures for your claims. If you intend to install wind turbines on a building, give exactly the amount of power you expect from those wind turbines.
  3. Prove it. It isn’t enough to stick a figure on your claims, you need to be sure that the figure is correct. If you are comparing your product with other similar products on the market, are you just comparing with the worst? Or are you honestly comparing with all the available alternatives, and proving that yours is a good option? Are you comparing your carton water just with bottled water, or with tap water as well?
  4. Ask the greenies. Go and ask some nonprofit environmental organizations whether they think your product or service is green. Yes, there are some people with rather extreme opinions out there, and you might feel that their answer is too extreme. But, at the very least, you’ll know what they are likely to say before you begin marketing it.



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