COLUMBUS, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- As if you didn't know this already, a new report from Nielsen Online proves it: When it comes to going green, companies just can't fake it.
The report calls greenwashing a "failed corporate strategy" and urges brands to aim for transparency and consistency instead. "Bloggers are quick to condemn 'greenwashing' when they suspect companies misrepresent their environmental impact with aggressive PR campaigns -- as spurious attempts to be 'green,'" according to "Sustainability Through the Eyes and Megaphones of the Blogosphere."
Sustainability's buzz volume
The blogosphere is exploding with talk about "sustainability," with buzz volume growing more than 106% since September 2006, when blogger messages on the topic totaled 83,000. By December 2007, messages jumped to 172,000, Nielsen said.
When it comes to conversations about "greenwashing," the most popular blog topic is the contradictory actions of companies, comprising 25% of all discussions on greenwashing in 2007.
In asking who is winning the race to green, the report also explores the backlash some companies face when touting environmental initiatives -- comparing blogger reaction to similar efforts undertaken by two companies in the same industry. For example, even though General Electric Co. has been running extensive marketing touting its environmentalism, when it comes to energy efficiency issues, bloggers cite Whirlpool as beating GE on that measure.
"Bloggers claim GE has an inconsistent -- and often contradictory -- track record, but praise Whirlpool for focusing on smaller measures, such as energy-efficient appliances and its partnership with Energy Star," the report notes.
In another comparison to blogger reaction to the marketing of "fair trade" coffee, the report noted: "Bloggers praise Dunkin' Donuts' 'relatively demure PR stance,' stating that Dunkin' Donuts rarely broadcasts its 100% fair trade certification; bloggers critique Starbucks for its excessive 'lip-service.'"
Highly skeptical consumer group
Jessica Hogue, research director at Nielsen Online and author of the report, called bloggers a highly skeptical consumer group. She suggested brands that want to avoid the condemnation of the blogosphere study a recent marketing campaign by clothing maker Patagonia. The interactive online campaign Footprint Chronicles discloses both Patagonia's environmental good works and sins; i.e., its use of a synthetic chemical in its rain shell jacket and use of a wool supplier 16,200 miles away to make its merino wool shirt.
"Corporations can't do everything in one feel swoop, but need to be authentic and transparent about the steps they are taking," Ms. Hogue said.
The report also noted a broadening of the conversation about sustainability as online buzz about global warming wanes and green-related topics, such as recycling, packaging and carpooling, grow in popularity.
Even so, global warming remained the No. 1 topic among sustainability bloggers in 2007, followed by renewable energy/alternative fuels; resource conservation; recycle/reuse; carbon emissions; pollution; organics; toxins; packaging/plastic; and transportation (hybrids, carpooling).
So if you're a marketer eager to start listening to this conversation online about sustainability, where should you begin? Start with the most popular sustainability blogs online. Nielsen ranked Discovery Channel's TreeHugger.com No. 1 with 4,612 messages related specifically to sustainability in 2007. Worldchanging.com was ranked No. 2, followed by Biopact.com, theoildrum.com and alternativeconsumer.com.