THE 'GREENWASHING' FACTOR
That's not to say consumers would be readily inclined to take such credentials at face value, particularly given the common suspicion that companies are engaging in "greenwashing." Naturally, this makes life more difficult for companies whose green efforts are genuine and substantial.
"Given the general level of distrust of companies that exists right now among mainstream consumers, any greenwashing story that hits the general press undermines all companies who have a sustainability message," says Loch. "Consumers see it as just another reason why they should be skeptical of marketing claims. An unfortunate aspect to this is that companies may hold back on communicating about their progress toward sustainability for fear of being accused of greenwashing. That's what can create the level of skepticism we see among executives in this survey and will invariably slow the progress of the sustainability movement."
Companies that are truly green need to overcome their fear of being suspected of greenwashing when they publicize their efforts: "As long as companies are transparent in their communications and don't overstate the social and environmental impact of their efforts, they can avoid being painted with the greenwash brush," says Loch. "It gets back to the need of really taking inventory of what is happening throughout the organization and then weaving that into a compelling, credible and defensible narrative."
Since few consumers believe a majority of companies are serious about sustainability, it'd be nice to think they're eager to reward those corporations they perceive as doing the right thing in this area. But it doesn't seem to work that way.
"Given the recent banking crisis and BP oil spill, consumers are reluctant to express optimism about Corporate America's good intentions in general," says Loch. "It's comparable to polls about Congress. People generally disapprove of Congress, but support their representative. I think consumers may generally distrust 'Corporate America,' but like the companies with which they do business. In that sense, they probably are more impressed when 'their' companies go green and are more skeptical of claims from companies with which they don't have a relationship."