What is 'green business' and what does it mean? Don't tar your company with the green brush before stopping to survey the zeitgeist! It's what your customers think that matters.

"Green business", "green marketing" and "green" in general have become abused, jaded terms. What was once a rallying cry for the ethically minded has become a key 'put-off' for the majority of consumers.

That's not to say 'green' terms are not popular… A quick search on google reveals that 'green' is the most common term people use to describe 'ethical', 'environmental', 'ecological' and 'sustainable' things, and herein lies the start of the problem.

But far more pertinent than the multiple meanings which 'green' is used to define, is the image or 'feeling' it conjures up in a consumers mind. To people that are concerned with 'environmental conservation', 'renewable energy' or 'ethical issues' the term 'green' verifies whatever is being described is 'for them', but to the majority of consumers any mention of 'greenness' is a warning sign to be avoided, at all costs.

Many consumers, especially in the UK1, perceive 'green' or 'eco products' to be higher cost, lower quality and less reliable than regular goods. This is largely due to the erroneous 'green claims' 2 which have dented consumer trust. But the main issue for the business owner promoting 'sustainable' or 'ethical' goods is that the key people they need to convince to switch to more sustainable choices are the ones that think the products are crap! And to top it off they're compounding consumers negative perceptions by labelling everything 'green'! The 'greenies' will buy 'eco', 'green' and 'hippy' goods all day long, ethical producers don't need to appeal to this market! To encourage environmentally responsible behaviour at scale companies need to convince everyone to go for the 'green' option and they're not going to achieve that by labelling everything 'green'.

And now, in a final bid to baffle the consumer the poorly understood term 'social enterprise' is increasingly being used to describe 'green business'. A straight swap of words is confusing enough but the term 'social enterprise' also tries to accommodate all Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs), charities and Not-for-profit Organisations under the same banner! It's hardly surprising that "social enterprise definition" is the second fastest rising search term related to social enterprise in the UK.

Just for the record:

Social Enterprise - Definition: Social enterprises are social mission driven organisations which apply market-based strategies to achieve a social purpose.3

So how are you supposed to go about communicating green issues, ethical values and marketing environmentally friendly products? The Advertising Standards Authority has issued guidance on green claims4 mainly pointing out that marketing materials should not contain lies. It's good to know they're still on the cutting edge...

The real answer however lies in ethics. Your ethics, your company's ethics and marketing your products or services in an ethical way. Consumers are not easily tricked any more, but the converse is true; they like the truth, and are often impressed by blunt honesty. It is far more impressive to hear a CEO hold his hands up and say 'we messed up, but we're going to try harder from now on' than to hear some monkey from the comms team try to bluff his way out of a tricky situation with excuses.

If you have a good product, with a strong value proposition, you should not need to resort to 'green claims' with their associated 'issues'. But high-lighting how your company's ethics, explaining the effort you have made to source sustainably, and the rigour of your 'non-toxics' policy, for example, are viable 'ethical communication' strategies.

'Marketing ethics' and 'ethics in marketing' are both rising search terms on google. And it is hardly surprising in this world of corrupt police, corrupt bankers and corrupt politicians that more and more people are searching for the definition of ethics itself. It seems useful to remind ourselves that at its simplest, ethics is "a system of moral principles". Ethics affect how people make decisions and lead their lives5, which is clearly a key issue of marketing, albeit one which does not fit well with the current capitalist system. But in these changing times, when the systems upon which we reply for our survival are starting to falter and the actions of many organisations are being called to question, 'ethics' is undoubtedly a key issue. A key issue to get right!

When it comes to marketing ethical goods and services and communicating 'green issues' we have a lot to learn about the world of ethics. People are often obsessed by models and theories of behaviour change and how these can be used to define marketing strategies and predict purchase patterns, but the results are never as useful as a detailed understanding of your own, and your company's ethics.

When you know what you stand for, and are proud of your reasons for doing what you do, you might just find that you don't need buzzwords and bullshit to be brilliant. Check out the google insights6 for your key terms, to see what people are really looking for and contact us for more ideas about ethical marketing.

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