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Greenwash and sustainability: A glimmer of hope for marketing and PR?

I recently blogged on my frustrations with PR companies not getting CR, which spawned a pubcast on the topic with Brendan May.

(Ethical Corporation also publishes a column called “Greenwasher“, ten times a year in our print edition)

I wouldn’t go so far as to say we’ve had an influence on this recent announcement, but the news is definitely a good sign.

The company making useful announcements about greenwash is The Publicis Groupe, which claims to be one of the largest advertising conglomerates of the world.

The firm says it is now “forbidding greenwashing among any of its companies”. These include including Saatchi & Saatchi, Leo Burnett, Fallon, Starcom, MS&L, Digitas, and VivaKi.

The author of the blog post linked to above that announced the shift, Adam Werbach, has a fondness for hubris, and claims that this now means that “greenwashing is dead”.

Not true at all I’m afraid, sorry Adam.

In fact, it may well get worse before it gets better.

Just because Shell, Exxon, Ford, and a few other companies now realise they can’t oversell their environmental credentials, a few government regulatory bodies have made a small fuss, and Publicis has a new policy, that does not mean the end of greenwash.

I say it may get worse because there are lots of companies who have not yet grasped that the environment is a key business issue. (See recent Boston Consulting Group research for evidence)

This means there’s likely a lot more greenwash to come yet.

Marketing departments will take a long time to get to grips with sustainability, that much is clear.

Whilst most greenwash is accidental, it will still be around for quite a while yet.

The challenge for companies like Publicis is in their business model.

For example, when Maurice Levy, CEO of Publicis Groupe says “…the values of our Groupe compel us to create honest, truthful communication campaigns” he is taking both a leap of leadership and a reputational risk.

What happens the next time a car company, or a big industrial/extractive firm, or an airline, wants to boast about some environmental achievement that’s not really that impressive? What to do then? Turn down the account, the campaign, the business? Unlikely.

Ideally of course, Publicis should be able to persuade the client that the campaign is a bad idea, and suggest a better idea, or present the environmental claims in a truthful way.

The challenge will be when doing so negates the point of the ad or campaign in the first place, or the client doesn’t buy the idea, or Publicis can’t really think of a more compelling plan. So what then?

This is bold, impressive, leading committment by Publicis. We should applaud the sentiment. It will be fascinating to watch how it plays out under a combination of scrutiny and short term financial pressure.

1 Comment

  1. I agree that it depends on the execution, but leadership in sustainability requires bold steps, which this appears to be. Hopefully it will be a signal to their employees and their clients that this practice will not be tolerated. Only time will tell.

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