Marketing Sustainability Responsibly


What It Is

Responsible marketing in terms of sustainability means to promote the eco-friendliness of your products, services, or operations accurately and honestly. Responsible marketing avoids “greenwashing,” or presenting a business, product, or service as more environmentally friendly than it really is.

It should be noted that not all greenwashing is intentional.  Organizations often misrepresent products, services, or themselves simply because they don’t understand their environmental impact.

Why It Matters

“Consumers are wary of overstated or vague claims of [eco-friendliness], and use the courts and social media to combat [it].”[1] Responsible marketing helps an organization avoid this consumer backlash.  Accurately and honestly representing products and services promotes an organization as both trustworthy and environmentally savvy.

While it might seem unnecessary to share your organization’s practices with others, it’s actually one of the best ways to teach (and learn) about sustainability. Marketing sustainability responsibly is not only a way to get employees on the same page – it’s a way to promote sustainable practices in your community.

Getting Started

1. Understand green marketing pitfalls

2. Avoid the “seven sins of greenwashing”

Understand green marketing pitfalls

Check out the Federal Trade Commission’s “Green Guides” to make sure you are marketing your organization responsibly.  The Green Guides “address the application of” the FTC Act to environmental advertising and marketing practices.”[2]

Again, it’s important to realize that some organizations, despite their good intentions, are guilty of greenwashing.  Familiarizing yourself with the Green Guides will help you keep your organization from making this mistake.

Avoid the seven sins

According to TerraChoice’s 2010 report, over 95% of “green” products are greenwashed in some way.  To help organizations and consumers see through the greenwash, TerraChoice has identified the following sins:

1.   Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off: “A claim suggesting that a product is “green” based on a narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues.”

2.   Sin of No Proof: “An environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification.”

3.   Sin of Vagueness: “A claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer.”

4.   Sin of Worshipping False Labels: “A product that, through either words or images, gives the impression of third-party endorsement where no such endorsement exists” (i.e., fake labels).

5.   Sin of Irrelevance: “An environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products.

6.   Sin of Lesser of Two Evils: “A claim that may be true within the product category, but that risks distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole” (e.g., organic cigarettes, fuel-efficient SUVs).

7.   Sin of Fibbing: “Environmental claims that are simply false. The most common examples [are] products falsely claiming to be ENERGY STAR certified or registered.”[3]

Avoid these “sins” when promoting your product, service, or organization.  Click here for more information on the seven sins or here to download TerraChoice’s reports.

Going Further

1. Develop a simple marketing plan

2. Be transparent

3. Organize your documents

Develop a simple marketing plan

Developing a simple marketing plan of how, where, when, and to whom you plan to communicate your sustainable practices will ensure that people hear about them.  Remember to include employees in this plan, as it’s important to keep them well informed. You may also want to include your website and press releases in your plan.

Remember, communicating your sustainable practices makes a difference. When you share your organization’s practices and plans, others will take notice.


Be transparent

Document your sustainability practices as transparently as possible.  For example, many Green Plus Certified organizations document their green practices on their websites or on bulletin boards in their facilities, so the community can see and understand them.

Also, avoid broad claims such as “green” to describe an entire product or service. Instead, specify what about the product or service benefits the environment.

Organize your documents

Organizing sustainability documents can make communications and management much easier.  Consider organizing your practices into the sub-topic areas found in the Green Plus Diagnostic. You may also want to keep all your sustainability-related materials in a binder, so you can find and consult the information easily.

Case Study

Tesco, a global grocery store chain, caused a stir with its “Flights for Lights” campaign in 2009.  In an effort to go green, the company offered flight miles to customers who purchased energy-efficient light bulbs.

Although energy-efficient light bulbs help the environment, air travel does not.  Consumers lampooned Tesco on social media sites, particularly blogs, for this greenwashing.  One blogger likened “Flights for Lights” to “giving away a pack of [cigarettes] with every Nicorette patch.”[4]

Whether the greenwashing was intentional or not, Tesco’s campaign didn’t have its desired effect.  To read more on this story, check out this blog post on

Resources for More Information




Greenwashing runs rampant in modern marketing.  Organizations that market themselves responsibly promote themselves as both honest and environmentally savvy.  Customers reward organizations that follow the Green Guides and avoid the “Seven Sins,” saving their complaints for misleading marketing campaigns.

[1] Quote retrieved from “Greenwashing: What Your Client Should Know to Avoid Costly Litigation and Consumer Backlash” by Michelle Diffenderfer and Keri-Ann C. Baker,

[2] Information retrieved from “Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims (The Green Guides)”,

[3] List and quotes retrieved from “The Seven Sins” on,

[4] Quote retrieved from “Tesco’s ‘Flights for Lights’ Promotion – Every Little Hurts” by Ed Gillespie,

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