Eco-labeling vs. greenmuting: What’s right for you?

Eco-labeling vs. greenmuting: What’s right for you?

A while ago someone asked me whether my business card was printed on recycled paper. Yes, it is, I replied. Why, then, the response went, is there nowhere on my card a corresponding symbol to be seen? And, What if, when deciding whether to keep the card or do business with my company, a prospect tosses out mine because that sign of my environmental consciousness is missing?

My ultimate response boiled down to this: If a prospect makes her decision to do business with me based on the presence or absence of the recycled-content symbol on my business card, we’re probably not a good fit. My reputation and work, not symbols on my business card, should speak for me.

What are the pros and cons of eco-labeling? Should you greenmute instead? Are there other ways to convey environmental friendliness of your products or services?


Eco-labels are marks awarded by third parties to indicate environmental or health attributes of a product and build credibility with receptive consumers.

So many government entities, nonprofits, and corporations issue eco-labels that today there are more than 300 eco-labels in North America alone, in many industries and product categories. The eco-label landscape is confusing, and as a result eco-labeling as a marketing tactic has lost some of its cachet.

In addition, many labels have been misused or downright abused, as when the Smart Choices label adorned sugary cereals. Greenwashing is alive and giving eco-labels or eco-language a bad name. Just prior to writing this post, I read about UK’s advertising watchdog banning a Finnair ad because it called flying “eco-smart”. TerraChoice just added the use of false in-house eco-labels to their list of greenwashing sins.

Eco-labeling and related issues can be quite daunting for a business. Which is why I look forward to attending and reporting on tomorrow’s virtual conference“Sustainable Brands In Focus: Building Credibility, Avoiding Greenwash”*.


Companies practice greenmuting when they deliberately avoid communicating their work or accomplishments in the environmental realm.

In most cases, the fear of being accused of greenwashing motivates greenmuting. Companies recognize their environmental claims will be subjected to close scrutiny and so they opt to avoid it by not making such claims.

I wouldn’t go as far as some, including TreeHugger, who call greenmuting a sin. While greenmuting has its disadvantages, it’s just a risk management technique (when some authors sell sustainability as a risk management practice, no feathers get ruffled). It’s also one that saves us from a lot of green blabber; if companies greenmute because they fear greenwashing charges, the market deterrent is working.

I see another angle on greenmuting, one that is more relevant to my story. What if you don’t highlight your greenness because you’d prefer not to differentiate yourself that way? Green is a niche strategy with limited reach, at best. Greenmuting because green is irrelevant to your positioning certainly makes sense.

The third way(s)

Jacquie Ottman has suggested a number of alternatives to eco-labels, which fall roughly in two categories: third-party endorsements and credibility. The former use disinterested persons, organizations, or awards to endorse your product’s eco credentials. The latter build green communications on the company’s reputation and transparency.

In my case the absence of eco-symbols on my card is closer to counter-signaling. Think of the last time you heard someone tell you, Trust me. Or how you felt when you saw Ph.D. after an author’s name. Your guard probably went up, and you thought, Well if you have to say it…

I don’t use eco labels for the same reasons I don’t include the acronyms of my graduate degrees behind my name: it’s irrelevant and unnecessary. What others say about me matters more than what I say about myself. My work and its results should speak louder than my eco-labels.

Ultimately, I stand with Adam Werbach, who maintains that eco-labels are unsustainable as a marketing practice because sustainability must come from the organizational core. What use is the label if sustainability isn’t within? And who needs labels if you’re sustainable through and through?

(That’s not to say I’m perfect when it comes to sustainability; it’s an ongoing process for me as it is for every other company.)

What’s right for you?

Use eco-labels if

  • you can use a well-recognized, meaningful, and credible one, or one from such an institution or other third-party
  • you can afford it
  • you have nothing to hide or can credibly defend your claim
  • you can use a narrow one, describing one significant aspect of your product without greenwashing

Use greenmuting if

  • you have significant work to do when it comes to sustainability
  • you aim for mass appeal
  • you care not to differentiate on green

According to Tyler Cowen, of the Marginal Revolution fame, counter-signaling works best for situations when there’s a great potential reward and low downside risk. Many high-margin/low-volume products or services can use counter-signaling to their advantage, as can those that entail narrow, specialized expertise.

What’s your take on eco-labels and greenmuting?


* Disclosure: Sustainable Life Media granted me a free press pass for the “Sustainable Brands In Focus: Building Credibility, Avoiding Greenwash” conference – the virtual conference registration costs $295.

This commentary can be found originally at: Sustainable Marketing Blog by Peter Korchnak. Better triple bottom line.