• Ethics
  • Consumer trends

All that glitters isn’t green, says Mark Shayler

I love a portmanteau. I really do. I think my absolute favourite is shittering. It refers to the phenomenon of picking up your dog’s poo (the shit in shittering) in a bag, then hanging that bag in a tree or leaving it on the floor (the littering in shittering). But a close second is green-cocking. A portmanteau of green washing and peacocking (I can take no credit for this one – my good friend Clare Potter created it, I believe). You know the kind of thing – boasting about your green credentials when they are maybe not that legitimate.


This isn’t just a business thing. We see it in our social circles too. But we call it virtue signalling. You know the kind of thing. Boasting about never using plastic bags but having at least ten canvas totes in the cupboard (a canvas tote needs to be used around 160 times before it is better than 160 single use plastic carriers), or frequenting the Zero Waste store, but ensuring everyone knows about it.


Doing good has become the new cool.


And so it is inevitable that businesses will use environmental initiatives to make people like them more. Actually, this is the basis of many organisations’ approach to CSR. ‘Let’s spend a bit of money doing good over here so that no-one looks too hard at what we are doing over there.’ The “Quick, look, a badger” approach.


Now, I don’t wish to be too harsh here. There are many great CSR initiatives. However, having a CSR team dedicated to telling CSR stories can be compelling – but also feel a little inauthentic. I used to be the Environmental Manager at a major British supermarket. It was a great role and I was able to work on amazing things like ethical trade, packaging reduction, sustainable supply chains, subsidised cycles for colleagues to get to work on, solar panels on roofs and loads of other great stuff. The thing was, the business put me in the PR team. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that a good job was only about getting the story in the paper. They kind of lost interest in things after that. This was my first example of green-cocking and it’ll be no surprise to find that I only stayed there a little over a year.

So it is inevitable that businesses will use environmental initiatives to make people like them more.

The two most “celebrated” recent cases of green-cocking that made the news are:


  1. An airline which claimed to have the lowest carbon emissions of any major airline in Europe. This claim was included in an advertising campaign across both television and press, claiming ‘Europe’s lowest fares, lowest emissions airline’.


The advert was based on the CO2 emissions per passenger, per kilometre flown. Their explanation was based on having the youngest fleet, highest proportion of seats filled, as well as newest and most fuel-efficient engines. However, they failed to provide any details of this data to the consumer.


The ASA banned these adverts, ruling that they were misleading and that the airline had failed to substantiate its environmental claims.


This advertising campaign was a major example of high-profile green-cocking. Not only did many of the well-known airlines not feature on the comparison data but, some of this data was collected in the year 2011; making it entirely irrelevant for comparisons of company environmental credentials taking place in 2019.


  1. A fast-fashion house which claimed to be moving to a sustainable new material. Indeed, they have invested heavily in material innovation and recycling. However, it ignores the pile-it-high-sell-it-cheap element of their business. Shopping has become a kind of anti-depressant and accumulating too much stuff, particularly clothes, is a major challenge to resource consumption. The company received significant customer backlash for ignoring the element in the room.

There is no hiding anymore. The end of storytelling is a long way off but the end of story inventing is nigh.

The world has changed and you can see everything now. If you say you ‘don’t do evil’ and are found out doing actual evil, then expect your business to suffer. Unless you are the world’s largest search engine, that is. But generally there is no hiding anymore. The end of storytelling is a long way off but the end of story inventing is nigh. In his book Marketing Rebellion, Mark Schaeffer neatly summarises the situation by defining three phases that we’ve moved through:


  1. The end of lying.
  2. The end of hiding.
  3. The end of control.


Lying. You the know the type of thing: “More doctors smoke our brand than any other cigarette”. This approach was widely adopted by the advertising industry for decades. It still is.


Hiding. Not quite lying, not quite telling the truth. Ask VW about this one. The Dieselgate scandal nearly brought them down. Okay, admittedly there was some lying here, but the main thing was the hiding. Hiding the truth, hiding from the press, hiding from the science.


Control. Schaeffer estimates that two thirds of a company’s marketing impact is out of the company’s control. This is staggering. Companies are wasting two thirds of their marketing budget. Customers make their own minds up about us now. We can’t persuade them. All we can do is inform them. This is where the urge to Green-cock comes-in. The desire to virtue signal is massive given the collapse of traditional marketing routes.


The real challenge is that “doing the right thing” should just be the right thing to do and not a marketing campaign. By all means talk about it, talk about the work that you are doing. It is really important that you do, but withhold the celebration of the fact that you are doing this work. Just put your head down and make a difference. If in doubt, remember the old maxim:


Don’t tell me you’re funny, make me laugh.


Read more from Mark Shayler here


Mark Shayler is an environmental expert with 30 years experience. He’s saved his clients over £150 million per annum and redesigned everything from houses to washing machines, packaging to vehicles. He is an expert in circular economy business models and innovation. He runs the sustainable innovation agency Ape.


Photographs by Brian Yurasits and Markus Spiske.


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