NEWS ANALYSIS: Can green survive a bleak economy?

The current state of the economy is forcing businesses to assess all costs. But will they reconsider their green initiatives and risk losing their environmentally friendly reputations? Kate Magee investigates.

Solitaire Townsend
Solitaire Townsend

The issue of 'greenwash' loomed large earlier this month when the Advertising Standards Authority revealed that complaints about misleading environmental advertising had doubled over the past year.

Clearly, consumers are waking up to the commercial motives behind many green campaigns. Bodies including the CIPR and agency Futerra have responded to this by issuing guidelines to help marketers and PR people plan campaigns that are effective but not manipulative (see graphic, right).

But with a recession looming, will environmental budgets be the first to be chopped? Could economic pressures turn out to be more of a threat than consumer cynicism?

Meangingful campaigns
Environmental PR experts do not think that businesses have been jumping off the green marketing bandwagon in their hordes, but they do admit that companies are thinking more carefully about their budgets.

Greenwash guide: futerra has highlighted ten signs of corporate greenwash'Some marketing spend will be hit,' says Trimedia's director of CSR James Wright who is the chair of the CIPR Steering Group that produced the greenwash avoidance guidelines. 'But the green issue isn't going to go away.'

Futerra's CEO Solitaire Townsend says that companies will be more careful to spend money on green campaigns that are meaningful rather than just dipping a toe in the green pond.

'Most greenwash is not caused by malice but by over-enthusiasm,' argues Townsend, explaining that it is often a product of getting involved too quickly. 'A recession would force people to be more considered. We will see a dip in the number of "get green quick" campaigns.'

Indeed, businesses do not just make environmental moves for a feel-good factor. There is evidence that consumers are increasingly impressed by green credentials and make buying decisions on that basis. Futerra estimates that if the current growth rate continues, this market of eco-friendly consumers will be worth £53.76bn in five years and nearly £180bn by 2022.

Equally, ethically conscious consumers are not basing their buying decisions purely on price. A deeper engagement with the brand, thanks to eco-friendly products, means their loyalty is less likely to fluctuate in harder financial times.

SustainAbility CEO Mark Lee agrees. 'Environmental policy is not going to be the first thing chopped,' he believes, arguing that the issue has longevity. Nor will it be easy to remove. In many companies it is not kept in a green PR silo but spread throughout the company.

Environmentalism has also been woven into the centre of many brands' values, says Townsend: 'You don't muck around with your brand in belt-tightening times.'

If big businesses are thinking about cutting back on green PR spending, they are not keen to admit it. Both BSkyB and Marks & Spencer, much lauded for their green campaigns, say they are still totally committed to their campaigns.

'We are doing this because there are concrete business reasons,' insists BSkyB's corporate media relations manager Bella Vuillermoz. 'Consumers want companies to lead on the issue, so businesses who are not doing this are failing their customers,' she adds.

Indeed many environmentally friendly actions are also cost-effective. 'The green penny is dropping with consumers that they can not only save the planet, but also save money at the same time,' says The Climate Group's European head of media Tom Howard-Vyse.

Careful consideration
Legally, it is unlikely that businesses will be able to ignore the green issue. 'If the credit crunch had come earlier I would have been concerned, but it will soon become embedded in legislation,' says Townsend.

With the climate change bill passing through parliament, and a range of international legislation in the pipeline, governments will soon have a legal responsibility to monitor their impact.

But the question of whether the recession will stop businesses caring about the green issue surprises Townsend. 'It is predicated on the assumption that companies never really meant it.'

Lee says that companies are 'taking a sober second look before they make an investment in the green issue', but argues that once an investment is made, it is often bigger than in the past.

Both Wright and Townsend warn brands looking to make cuts that there is a huge reputational risk in cutting out the green message. 'If you reduce your budget people will start to think your good reputation was only due to greenwash,' says Townsend.

As Wright warns: 'The danger of pulling out of existing green campaigns may do more harm then good. Media and NGOs have long memories, and so does the public.'

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