By endorsing consumer products, environmental campaigners could help shoppers make sense of brands’ green marketing claims. But such partnerships are inevitably controversial

Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, is not very popular with many of his members after an endorsement deal with cleaning products maker Clorox (see The last word, September 2008).

But Pope is standing firm. He strongly believes the deal, through which Clorox’s new Green Works line of products carries the Sierra Club name, is a positive step for both his group and the future of business-NGO partnerships.

As the public grows more cynical about corporate greenwash, Pope believes the endorsing by NGOs of well-vetted consumer products can help shoppers find those truly worthy of the “green” label.

Pope calls the Sierra Club’s relationship with Clorox, in which his organisation – the biggest environmental campaigner in the US – is drawing an undisclosed portion of the profits from Green Works products, an “interesting experiment” for the group.

“When Clorox originally approached us, I was a bit sceptical that the product was good enough to make us interested in sharing some of the receipts from it,” he says. “But we went through a very, very, intense due diligence process. We looked at the product, its ingredients, the company and its practices and we came away very impressed.”

Pope says the quickly established popularity of the Green Works line proves that consumers trust the Clorox brand and believe that the Sierra Club’s endorsement ensures its green credentials are legitimate.

“They talked with at least one other NGO who wanted to endorse the project right out of the box, but went with us because of our strong due diligence process,” he says. “That’s actually a very hopeful sign that a big company like Clorox didn’t want to do it cheap and easy. They wanted to do it correctly with a green partner that might make their life a little miserable.”

Many Sierra Club members, however, have said the lack of transparency in the group’s decision to endorse the product makes it difficult to confirm just how much vetting really was done and goes against everything the Sierra Club demands of the companies it campaigns against.

A house divided

Pope says his members are divided over the endorsement, according to their age.

“We’ve discovered a really big generational shift,” he explains. “Members under 45 are almost all very enthusiastic about it – not all, but most. Our members over 45 are in three camps: those who can’t stand the idea of any kind of consumer products; those who think it’s a good, cool idea; and those who liked it better when the lines were cleaner and it was all black and white.”

But Pope believes there is a benefit to “blurring the lines”. He says some consumers need to be guided through the marketplace and need names they can trust to help them do that.

“Without a name you can trust to help you through the marketplace, you’re left with nowhere to go,” he says. “It becomes a matter of: if not us, then who?”

NGOs have to realise, Pope says, that to achieve their campaign goals they may need the support of big companies. “None of them are perfect,” he says. “Clorox certainly isn’t. But we want them to be better. You can’t just say that five years ago they weren’t so good, so you’re not going to work with them.”

Pope also warns against labelling whole companies as green, however.

“Look at GE,” he says. “Within the space covered by Ecomagination, GE is doing a very good job. But that’s only 20% of GE; 80% of GE has no green goals. They’re still trying to be low-cost producers of old-fashioned light bulbs and their nuclear power plants are still 1960s vintage. On the other hand, their jet engines are a lot cleaner than they used to be. It’s often a mixed bag when you talk about big companies.”

Switching off

Pope cautions that green marketing is being overdone. “It’s wearing thin,” he warns. “I think the public believes correctly that much of what’s out there is bogus. They’re tired of buying things they’re told are green, only to find out that they’re not.”

Pope clearly hopes, despite strong dissent within his own ranks, that if NGOs back products they believe are truly green, it will help consumers separate the wheat from the chaff. The trick for organisations such as the Sierra Club, as Pope is quickly finding out, will be to look like they have not sold out their reputation in exchange for a little “green” of their own.

Smart campaigns

In September 2005 Sierra Club members voted to make “smart energy solutions” one of its top three campaign priorities for the next five to 10 years.

1.3m members decided to campaign for clean car laws and aggressive energy efficiency and renewables targets in US states, and to promote the job creation potential of clean energy.

The club campaigns against new coal-fired power plants, and oil and gas development in the arctic or offshore.

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