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Steps on the Green Scale

The Sydney Morning Herald | 18 September 2008

Attacks on the environmental credentials of corporations may be hindering rather than fostering change, writes Paul McIntyre.

THE SCIENCE AND GREEN lifestyle media group bankrolled by the millionaire neuroscientist and Monash University chancellor Dr Alan Finkel has weighed into the greenwashing debate with claims that corporates are becoming unnecessarily spooked about promoting their environmental credentials to consumers because they fear criticism from media and the green lobby.

The claims by Luna Media, which publishes the science magazines Cosmos and G Magazine, and The Green Book, come at a critical time for the corporate sector. Australia’s peak advertiser body, the Australian Association of National Advertisers, released a discussion paper two weeks ago to determine whether it would develop a code to regulate environmental claims by industry.

When the review was announced in late August, it received critical endorsement from Jeff Angel, of the Total Environment Centre, who said advertisers needed to back a “war on greenwash”. Public trust, he said, was crucial to avoid a future backlash on green products and services.

“Environmental claims and brands should inspire and encourage consumers, not dupe them into thinking they are doing their part for the environment when they are not,” said Mr Angel. “It’s essential that green products become mainstream, the normal products to buy, but for this to happen consumers must be confident about environmental claims.”

Although Luna Media’s chief executive, Kylie Ahern, said she “agrees entirely” with the need for authentic green claims and regulation, corporates should not be put off telling consumers about the initiatives and progress they were making on the environmental front. “You can’t be 100 per cent pure in one go,” she said.

Ms Ahern cited a study by Mobium Group which estimated 26 per cent of Australian adults – about 4 million – are “aligned” to lifestyles of health and sustainability, known internationally as the LOHAS consumer segment.

“Consumers would rather spend money on companies that are making an effort than those that are not.”

Mobium said Australians would spend about $12 billion this year on LOHAS products and services in categories such as food and nutrition, building, energy, natural cleaning products and efficient appliances, but the figure would rocket to $21 billion by 2010. However, 46 per cent of this consumer group were what the research group defined as “learners” who wanted to do the “right thing” but were unsure where and how to start.

It was this group, Ms Ahern said, which needed and wanted corporate information to help them make more informed purchasing decisions.

“LOHAS consumers would rather spend money on companies that are making an effort than those that are not,” she said. “It is really important we have regulation and scrutiny but we don’t want to see business turned off even trying to say something because they’re so nervous about being attacked.”

Luna Media’s co-founder, Wilson da Silva, said the publisher had faced reluctance from some top advertisers to promote their green initiatives or products because of the threat of a greenwash attack.

“We’ve seen some resistance,” he said. “They’re worried they can’t advertise in a green magazine or make green claims more broadly because they’re not green enough. That’s not our experience. There is a large chunk of people in this segment that have to buy cars, clothes and they travel widely, and they would rather spend money on companies that are on the road doing something that is sustainable than spending it with someone who isn’t doing anything. There’s 26 per cent of the population that would rather spend money on something that reduces their footprint rather than increasing it.”

Luna Media’s revenues from G Magazine and its science title, Cosmos, will generate revenues of $3 million next year, with G‘s circulation now about 35,000.

Ms Ahern said “it’s not a bad thing at all” for companies to be careful about their environmental claims but she argued there was media overkill on the issue. “It’s always easier to sell the bad story, isn’t it? Some of this concern from advertisers is a result of a bit of media hype, just like around the climate change issue. There was so much attention around the sceptics, who are the minority of scientists, but they get a lot of attention.”

Greenwashing aside, Luna Media’s revenues from G Magazine and its science title, Cosmos, will generate revenues of $3 million next year, with G‘s circulation now about 35,000. The question, however, is if the LOHAS segment contains about 4 million people hungry for environmentally friendly information, why haven’t bigger media companies jumped on the green media bandwagon and why is G‘s circulation relatively low, given the size of the market?

“We have the same challenge as any other small business – awareness,” said Ms Ahern. “We’re a small publisher with small marketing budgets and when you go into a newsagent people are not thinking about a green magazine. When people think green, they think it must be anti-corporate or some sort of alternative lifestyle thing.

“As a category pioneer, you’re trying to establish something that does not exist in people’s minds. G will go online [late this month] and that will push things along hugely.”


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