Greenwashing and PR

For decades, large and small corporations nationwide have utilized Earth Day as a platform for publicizing the latest green initiatives. Certainly, some of these past initiatives have been well-intentioned and impactful. In 2012, Coca-Cola donated 1,000 syrup drums to communities across the country for reuse as rain barrels. And last year, NASCAR and UPS partnered in 2013 to offset the emissions produced in NASCAR races by planting 150,000 trees.

Still, have any of these programs truly mitigated the impact of climate change?

Alas, Earth Day is Ground Zero for greenwashing marketing ploys, which have been pervasive over the past decade. From releasing “eco-friendly” single use water bottles to encouraging people to fly around the country (with carbon credits), corporate America has repeatedly bungled sustainability initiatives on Earth Day. That greenwashing mentality can extend throughout the year: recall that BP presented itself as “Beyond Petroleum” until the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe became the largest marine accident in the history of the petroleum industry, and one of the most destructive environmental events in American history. Nestle’s repeated claims that “bottled water is the most environmentally responsible consumer product in the world” is another classic greenwashing move.

For communications professionals, greenwashing isn’t just disingenuous advertising. It also undermines the real sustainability communications work we do every day. One bad apple can spoil a lot of the bunch.

As April 22, 2014 approached, I was curious to see whether greenwashing or serious environmental mitigation initiatives would take the lead. As has been reinforced by the recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, we know that now, more than ever, is the time to take the environment seriously.

As predicted, companies leveraged Earth Day as a hook to promote their green bonafides, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of their announcements were supported by strategically implemented long-term initiatives. Legoland Florida announced its plan to run on renewable energy for the entirety of the day, and power the “Imagination Zone” section of its park with renewable energy on an ongoing basis.

Green Energy CorporateBut the biggest news was Apple’s vow to power all offices, stores and data centers with renewable energy, while offering free recycling for all its used products. Because Apple is viewed as a thought leader and innovator in the technology space and beyond, this latest announcement will likely prompt others to implement programs of the like, making the company’s decision all the more impactful.

The corporate world has come a long way in recent years. This year’s Earth Day festivities showed a marked shift from self-promotional half-measures to real initiatives that provide long-term sustainable solutions. Greenwashing may not be dead yet, but it’s certainly on life support.

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