Battling Green Noise

“Beyond Petroleum” is a strange slogan for a company that sells mostly petrol. Is BP really that embarrassed by the 3.8 million barrels of oil they produce every day for grateful motorists, and presumably even more grateful shareholders?

If the amount of effort the petrol retailer is going to to promote its coffee is anything to go by, then it appears so.

BP has recently switched its entire coffee supply to “fair trade”. This switch has been matched by an ad campaign of billboards extolling fair trade’s social and environmental benefits.

Surely in the history of retail this is the first time that an oil company’s marketing department has decided to emphasise its petrol station coffee instead of its petrol. It’s an interesting strategy – come for the lattes, stay for the fossil fuels.

But BP is hardly alone. Corporations across the world are trying to squeeze into green clothes. Green is the new black. Apparently, environmentalism sells.

Traditional eco-activists describe all of this in the most disparaging of terms – “green wash”. But what did they expect? Years of environmental moralising has elevated eco-friendly products to the lofty status previously held by Chanel, Porsche and Rolex.

Would anybody really be surprised if in the next few years James Bond was driving a Prius? A licence to kill is not a licence to act irresponsibly, you know.

There are two characters in this story. The first is the usually well-meaning, if naive, environmental activist who seeks to activate green consciousness in the masses. The second is the entrepreneur who has figured out that consumers might pay just a little bit more for products described as “eco-friendly”.

We’ve seen the relationship between these two characters play out before. A few years ago, when “corporate social responsibility” was all the rage, businesses started filling their marketing departments with social activists and scheduling meetings between non-government organisations and CEOs. Both usually left these meetings either annoyed or just disappointed that they didn’t speak each other’s languages; businesses aren’t charities, and charities aren’t businesses. But everybody got to shake hands in front of the company photographer, and the photos were successfully reproduced in annual reports across the country.

But corporate social responsibility was so 2003. Activists and marketing departments are working together again – this time for the environment.

As a result, products claiming that they are environmentally conscious have flooded the market. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with trying to be environmental or ethical when you shop. And there’s nothing wrong with businesses trying to market their products according to contemporary fashions.

Nevertheless, remember the good old days when products were just either “biodegradable” or “not biodegradable”?

In those simpler times, products either decomposed quickly, or survived 60 ka-trillion years in a landfill.

It is all getting a little bit silly now. Publicists pile adjective upon adjective, desperately trying to beat the competition – eco-friendly, environmentally friendly, renewable, sustainable, recyclable, reusable, natural, organic, low-footprint, low-carbon, low-impact, or just clean. How can something be “100% earth-friendly”?

Green products and services have multiplied. Should we buy new organic jeans?

Across the world, real estate agents have started marketing themselves as “EcoBrokers”. And the idea of “sustainable graphic design” would sound like a parody if it wasn’t for the dreary earnestness of its advocates.

This isn’t green wash, it’s green noise. Claims that products are sustainable are more often than not confusing and contradictory. Those organic jeans rely on dyes and finishing agents that should chill the environmental heart.

And most of the time, labelling a product as “eco-friendly” is as meaningless as labelling a product as “great”. Think back to your childhood – just because tiny chocolate bars are described as “fun-size” doesn’t mean they are any more fun.

It seems that in 2008, no self-respecting marketing department can avoid pointing out just how environmentally beneficial their new range of shampoo is. (Marketing seems like a fun job: “New slightly thicker shampoo bottles can now be refilled with water for your convenience – and the planet!” or “Now dolphin free!”)

But there is evidence to suggest that all this green noise is leading to green fatigue – everybody is just getting a little bit eco-exhausted.

In a recent survey conducted by the Shelton Group, a Texas-based ad agency, 49% of US consumers said the environment was an important consideration when they purchased a product. But only 21% said that environmental considerations had led them to choose one product over another.

That’s right – less than half of the people who said the environment was a significant factor when choosing products had ever chosen a product because it was better for the environment.

So either a quarter of consumers are deliberately choosing the most environmentally damaging product in a manic desire to destroy Mother Nature, or people are just buying what suits their needs – environment be damned.

And the survey found that in 2007, 20% fewer consumers deliberately bought an environmentally friendly product than in 2006. Consumers seem to be figuring out that most eco-friendly claims are just a lot of marketing bluster.

Environmental groups find green fatigue frustrating, but they have been encouraging the overmarketing of sustainability. Greenpeace enjoys putting out press releases disapproving of new products – when Apple’s iPhone was launched, it was greeted with a barrage of overexcited condemnation for its lack of green features.

In the face of these sorts of campaigns, it is no wonder that marketing departments are trying to play catch-up.

But for a lot of businesses, the environment is just another publicity stunt.