Page last updated at 22:25 GMT, Monday, 18 February 2008

'Greenwash' is losing its shine

Rebecca Swift
Rebecca Swift

Simply being seen to be green will soon not be enough, says Getty Images' Rebecca Swift. In this week's Green Room, she argues that time is running out for advertisers who "greenwash" audiences with empty eco-cliches.

Recycle symbol (Image: Philip Lee Harvey/Getty Images)
The fascinating thing is how many ads actually recycle the same narrow range of the colour green, in an attempt to raise their eco-profile
As a company that generates imagery for the news wires and the world of advertising, we could not help but notice a global shift in interest towards "green" iconography.

Photography has its fashions like everything else, but once in a while something "mega" comes along that touches nearly everything we see.

As we all go about our daily business we probably don't give it much thought, but after observing what is being transmitted over days, weeks and months, a trend starts to appear.

Our research team spent a year wading through all commercial imagery from around the world relating to the environment. We found that, in relation to what companies say they are doing versus what they doing, there has been a great deal of "greenwashing".

The fascinating thing is how many ads actually recycle the same narrow range of the colour green in an attempt to raise their eco-profile.

There are two spectrums: one is what we call "kelly green" (think Kermit the Frog), and the other is "forest green" (think Landrover's classic colour).

Stormy times lie ahead for ads that rely on "eco-cliches"

Naturally, by extension, green trees, green leaves and green grass abound as green icons.

These natural icons have become cliched icons for the environment. So why has this happened and why should we care?

Firstly, it is to do with what is called mass culture. Scientists and governments are telling us that we are destroying the Earth and we all need to consume in a new way in order to slow down the destruction.

We are told, in emotive terms, about the risks facing our children and grandchildren's futures and presented with graphic depictions of the potential effects of our lack of consideration for our planet.

Substance verses spin

As our social behaviour has shifted and we spend more time being careful about recycling, buying organic, composting and not using plastic bags, the mass media has used these considerations to differentiate and sell.

"Green", as a selling point, used to be the endeavour of an earnest few. Now it has become a necessary and lucrative element in promoting a brand; but green advertising is still searching for its visual language.

Tap in a mud-bank (Image: Toledano/Getty Images)
Ad agencies have tried to tap into the success of campaign groups

The advertising with the really impactful imagery is being used by campaign groups like Greenpeace and WWF, which have the advantage of not actually having to sell anything but awareness.

Commercial advertising is now borrowing imagery from the campaigners. We see polar bears on melting ice caps, penguins in urban environments and famous skylines under water.

Ordinary people going about their everyday lives are subjected to messaging and imagery that all feel the same and therefore diminish in meaning as time goes on.

The last time I remember something similar happening was the propaganda associated with the "millennium bug" as the world approached the dawn of 2000.

As well as communication that educated, there was a wide range of products and services available that could alleviate the potential aftermath of the bug's impact.

At the same time, there was a blue-washing of commercial imagery, a shade called "millennium blue".

The 1990s had been a time of exponential growth for the technology industry; it was a time in which anything seemed possible.

We moved towards 24/7 industry, business hours lengthened across all time zones and e-mail became the defacto communication tool.

The millennium bug was the first threat to our new technological future. The crash followed soon after. Socially and psychologically, we found ourselves stressed out and yearning for technology-free time-outs.

Person wearing a protective mask (Image: David Axelbank/Getty Images)
We should care about the 'greenwashing' of advertising imagery because we all need to differentiate between brands that embody green and others that have simply jumped on the bandwagon in a bid for a fast buck

Brands at the time were looking for a way to attract customers, so they promoted the fact their products were the answer to combating stress.

Blue became the colour that represented something calming and relaxing; it evoked the feeling that we all wished (and wish) to feel.

Advertising adopted it as the imagery equivalent of practising yoga. Most of the time it was literally a wash across the image; other times it was an icon or element within the image.

So, with the overwhelming amount of communication about green issues, we do look to trustworthy brands to lead us in our environmentally friendly choices.

We should care about the "greenwashing" of advertising imagery because we all need to differentiate between brands that embody green and others that have simply jumped on the bandwagon in a bid for a fast buck.

As with the millennium bug era, we will move out of the propaganda phase.

By all accounts, the environment issue will not disappear overnight as the "bug" did, but image producers like us and those that use imagery to say something about themselves are still searching for a more sophisticated language to communicate green agendas.

Expect imagery of the future to be any colour but green and imagery of the natural world to leave the cliches behind.

Rebecca Swift is global creative planning director for Getty Images, a global photo agency

This opinion piece coincides with the launch of Getty Images What Make a Picture (MAP) report on the issue of the environment and its role in marketing and communications

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Rebecca Swift? Will advertisers who rely on "greenwash" end up damaging the products they are trying to sell? Are there too environmental images and messages? Are people switching off to green issues or are we able make up our own minds without the help of advertisers?

This really isn't surprising, and isn't confined to corporations. Even our politicians are doing it. If a corporation can sucker people in to its product by claiming to be whatever the latest fad is then they'll do it. Sex sells, and nowadays so does being 'environmentally friendly'. But to me the politicians are the greater worry as they control the direction of our lives rather than just proffering products. When our Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has been seen on the BBC news in the past few months making a statement about government policy and then grinning at the exact moment he mentions the word "green" in relation to energy then it has spread too far. What was going through Gordon Brown's mind to trigger the smile? Probably a similar thought to the corporate managers: "I've said 'green energy' - that's sure to get me some votes".
Stuart, Malvern, England

A very good and balanced article which sums up the paradox of everyones' lives. In essence we want to preserve our standard of living while at the same time and in some nebulous way escape any harm to the environment - issues: "Save the Whale"; "Save the rainforest"; "Stop Global warming" - all become flavours of the month/ year/decade. When the media shift from one to the next it does not mean that the issue has been solved or resolved in any way it merely means that they have dropped off the headlines; whatever happened to acid rain? Incidentally, the one story of merit given little or no coverage in the mainstream media this morning is that global wheat stocks ( because of high global demand from Asia ) are now at an all time low of nine weeks supply ( normally it is twenty weeks at this time of year). I pray that this is not seized upon by our alarmist media since it would inevitably lead to a run on the shops. The real reason, lack of planting owing to successive low pr! ices and a misplaced drive towards aggressively sold "green" biofuels, will inevitably be lost in the fog of environmnetal panic.
Trefor Jones , Resolfen

In our country we have a new greenwashing item. Products, companies, activities and so on can eaily get a sort of label: ClimateNeutral. That's really bad. They try to convince consumers about ClimateNeutral Living. That's an illusion. Nobody is controlling, although the National Advertisement Code Commission did some good work against some brands advertisement.
Erik van Erne, Utrecht, The Netherlands

People should realise what fundamental changes we have to make,not just to preseve the world but to increase our quality of life.Silly phrases like'Eco Towns'trip off the tongues of politicians but don't stand up to scrutiny
steve johnson, whiwick

The resources of planet Earth are finite. As we consume those resources we pollute the planet, the land, the sea and of course the air. Climate change is only one symptom of man's insatiable desire to consume more and more. Advertising, no matter what colour or shade of green just encourages us to consume more. Don't blame "companies", they only exist to match our demands for more and more and even more. But as Matt Titheridge says, as we reduce consumption we increase the risk of recession. Humanity stands between the proverbial "Rock" and the "Hard Face". May we live in interesting times!
Mike "grumpy old man" Perkins, Whangarei, New Zealand.

We need to consume only what we really need and be sure every purchase is as "green" as possible. Example - I needed new sheets. Looked around and bought bamboo sheet on sale on internet. More expensive, more green. Very happy with them. Researching washing machines now to replace old one. Takes time and effort. And I try to buy local when possible. Bamboo was NOT local, though. Sadly, few things are.
kat , Grand Rapids, MI USA

Most TV's require more power to display all white pixels than all black pixels. You can approximatley say that a TV showing all white may use about 60 Watts, and a TV showing all black pixels uses about 40 Watts. If an advert with a largely black screen with some small text at the bottom is shown a prime show it's safe to say at least 10 million TV's would be showing it. Thats a saving of 200,000,000 Watts (200,000 Kilowatts) during the period the adverts showing. Not a bad savaing there really!
Chris, Reading, Berks

The problem with "greenwashing" is just what the name implies, it is washing over the real issue. People need to realize we need a lifestyle change and not a product change. Consumer capitalism is what is destroying the world on such a massive scale and even coupling the consumer paradigm with "green" products won't solve the problem. Question: Is is "greener" to purchase a brand-new organic fair-trade cotton t-shirt that was shipped even only several hundred miles to get to you, OR to go to the local thrift store and buy a used one? Riding a bicycle instead of driving even a hybrid car will reduce your carbon footprint as well as get you in great shape. If you need to clean your bathroom, you don't need to buy all-natural dye free bathroom cleaners, mix together some baking soda and castille soap and scrub. It's time for us measly little consumers to think for ourselves. We don't need a company to come up with green solutions for us, we just need to talk to each othe! r and work together to create our own solutions. (food not lawns!)
leila rae, colorado, united states

The underlying problem is with the advertising (Promotion) industry. Instead of providing valid factual reasons to buy a product they 'Persuade' by hitching to some emotive message. Usually they tack on pretty females, dire warnings, with-it messages such as the Green scene etc.
D Johnson, Stockport

Maybe I am old and cynical, but I can't help but think that the fact that we are labelled as "consumers" and identify ourselves as such is a large part of the problem.
Rod Hyde, Luton/UK

I feel strongly about the detrimental effect of widespread 'greenwashing'. Instead of raising awareness this constant barrage of the same iconography, repeated visual and textual messages, actually desensitises consumers to the threats of climate change and environmental degradation. Furthermore, images of polar bears and melting glaciers and even rainforest destruction, disengage the general public from taking action because such messages place the problems far away and not on our doorsteps. It is therefore easy to feel bad about the situation but not enough to really act upon it. We need to feel that environmental issues have potential impacts on our everyday lives in order to make change happen.
Helen Boulden, Lausanne, Switzerland

Green (along with organic and fair trade) is the new white-than-white. It will sell products for a while to those who are taken in, and then advertisers will find a new gimmick.
Jack, London

Excellent points. Have you seen the latest TV advert for digestive biscuits? It emphasizes the grain content (grain is seen as "good", "healthy"). What the ad doesn't tell you is the high amount of saturated fats in digestive biscuits. They are a very unhealthy food. So the association with good health the ad creates is totally false. Isn't it high time the Advertising Standards Authority cracked down on deception of this sort?
Ian, Ilford, UK

Using green issues to sell products is only going to confuse the public further. There is already a good deal of confusion in the public mind between organic products, health products, and the climate change issue. Only by education through mass media will people understand the issues and be able to make informed choices. We are told about climate change every day, but the science behind it is NEVER properly or fully explained. Instead of good quality science broadcasts we are presented with misleading and gaff-ridden documentaries like C4's Great Global Warming Swindle. The hard-core deniers will always exist and will continue to exploit the public confusion. Mass media has a duty to start properly presenting the science.
Paul A, London

Ultimately companys produce "things" people want and on the whole people don't care about the enviromental damage as long as they can have their new MP3 player, mobile phone, etc. For example Greenpeace ranks Apple as one of the most enviromentally damaging electronics companys yet people love the iPods.
David, Reading, UK

Ecomentalism has reached the status of a new religion. As the writer points out - it is predictable that the advertising industry has hung onto the coat tails. My favourite is the 'carbon neutral car insurance' - interesting advertising ploy but a carbon neutral car would be more challenging and more useful. Not sure that the semi-truths of the advertisers are any different to the half truths of the eco-priests.
John, England

Are you really arguing that there are some people out there... somewhere... who take anything said in an advert seriously?
David Hadley, Cradley Heath

Your comments are right on target, Rebecca. A gullible consumer is ripe for picking by a shrewd corporate type. When any company says its "good for the environment", we need a savvy consumer to ask him/herself, "what makes it so?" Illegitimi non carborundum!
Bill, New Hampshire, USA

Standardized labeling showing the truly green processes and products that went into the manufacturing of a product will do far more than imagery ever will. Otherwise it's all spin. Whether by images or by words. I think we have all picked up a Low-fat or Reduced-Fat item in the grocery store that made out through images and words that it was a healthy product when really the product had cut out only a modicum of fat. New imagery will only result in new ways to use it for spin. Imagery can't make a product green no matter how new or graphically wonderful their advertising images are. If manufacturers want to do something green without really changing the least they can do is instruct the consumer on how to recycle the parts of their product once it is used. Let them use the new art there.
Trog, La Crosse, WI, USA

I agree many corporations are simply saying they are green with tricky adverts and alike, yet the issue with climate change and eco-collapse is not a fad issue, it is happening and happening now; one can not close their eyes forever to a rising sea. The green tend is not an advertising campaign as many will soon come to find out, it will become a change of lifestyle, a change of the way we think and operate. And thought the wonderful rule of natural selection, those corporations that feign green will go extent such as will be the case with many now love creatures of the earth.
Mike Butler, Miami Florida US

At present, advertisers seem to be free to stress the "good" environmental features of a product while being under little obligation to declare the "bad" features. An overall "green rating" system needs to be developed and widely adopted against which products and services can be measured objectively. The rating system ought to be quantitative and take into account the environmental cost of developing, manufacturing, delivering, using and disposing of a product or service. The rating on each product or service should be published by the retailer by law. Using this approach, the consumer would be able to choose between, for example, a car that has a good fuel economy but which took lots of engineers in air conditioned offices to design, and a car that has worse fuel economy, but used fewer resources to design and manufacture and is easier to recycle and/or dispose of.
DomDom, London

Corporates are trying to lure citizen into there product just by promising green. After all with all the attention being green gets. Citizens are also getting aware of the rising global concern, as a result there is a slow but steady growing concern amidst buyers to purchase green items. Nevertheless its still important how good corporates can lure us, after all advertising is legalized lying.
manohar rao, Bangalore, India

I think that the comment on 'we all need to consume in a new way in order to slow down the destruction' sums up exactly the way companies are approaching this issue and rubbing their hands at the new customers they are targetting. Slowing down climate change takes a massive change of lifestryle, and buying a product is probably the exact opposite of what we should be doing, decreasing our carbon footprint by reducing our consumption. But hey, that kind of attitude isn't going to help prevent a recession though is it ?!
Matt Titheridge, Kingston, UK

Filtering the media is something that comes along naturally. With all of the thousands of advertisements that are thrown at consumers everyday, we already know which ones to look out for and which ones are not to be trusted. However, dumbing the environmental crisis down to an advertising campaign is a bit rash, I'd say. Where I agree with Rebecca Swift in that consumers should pay attention to the intention behind advertising, I outright disagree in calling the rise in green awareness similar to the Millennium scare. If anything, this advertising is more similar to the Truth ads, that fought against smoking, or the Got Milk campaign, that promoted a healthy diet. The environmental campaigns promote a healthier way of living, not an apocalypse.
Jennifer Mussari, Baltimore, MD, USA

But there are so many issues to keep track of now. Sustainable, organic, fair trade, crueelty free, low calorie, no hydrogenated fat... we really need standard labelling! I have been boycotting food products with non colour-coded nutrition statements on the front but I don't think the powers that be have noticed. And dairy products suddenly seem to have a "three pints a day" label (if that's it) with no justification that I've noticed. A fake food-health rule? Would they do that? You can bet they would.
Robert Carnegie, Hamilton, Scotland

It really is annoying to see companies advertise that they are making efforts to be green. But meanwhile, you don't have to dig deep to find that their efforts are a pittance against the amount of net profits they make and the damage that they do. I'd like to see this false advertising pulled apart very publicly.

Rebecca raises some very good points and concerns. The increasing use of "inappropriate" green advertising and packaging by companies with non-environmental products is of great concern. The motor industry is one area where this seems to be prevalent. But, it may backfire - as soon as I see, what I think is, a cynical attempt to manipulate by a manufacturer it makes me MUST less likely to buy, or think of buying, their products. Most people are familiar with ECOVER and their products - my opinion is that they operate as a sincere business with environmentally low impact products. However, their distinctive packaging has been copied by Tesco in their range of "not-so-environmental" products. A cynical attempt to use the goodwill and awareness built up over many years by ECOVER. People will be aware of other examples in other industries - Perhaps we should now label companies using "greenwashing" as "Green-liars" as a term of contempt for their activities...
James Tweedie, Dundee, Scotland

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