CBS EcoAds: GreenWashing or Green Brilliance to Fund Green Projects?

CBS EcoAd Green Leaf Certification

CBS EcoAd Green Leaf Certification

CBS recently announced the aquistion of EcoMedia, a company that funds environmental projects from advertising dollars. EcoMedia projects included green school makeovers, municipal energy retrofits and urban reforestation.  Continuing with EcoMedia’s mission, CBS plans to market to its advertisers a similar concept called the EcoAd, in which a portion of the advertising proceeds will continue to fund environmental projects.  Are EcoAds a brilliant plan to increase the funding of environmental projects or simply a greenwashing gesture to lure consumers under false pretenses into buying products from the EcoAd advertisers?

Each EcoAd will display the above leaf, which as EcoMedia founder, Paul Polizzotto explains as follows:

“The power of the EcoAd leaf is extraordinary,” said Paul Polizzotto, President of EcoMedia.  “When an ad features the leaf, it sends a powerful message to viewers that the brand is committed to both the environment and the communities they serve.  In supporting local green projects, they are helping municipalities with needed funding which in turn saves taxpayer dollars and leads to job creation.  At EcoMedia, we have been putting this model to work for years.  We are thrilled to be a part of the CBS family where we can grow the model across CBS’s best-in-class media assets.”

Smelling alot like Greenwashing?

After the CBS announcement, some environmentalists screamed greenwashing since the display of an EcoAd leaf, gives the strong appearance that such product or company is envionmentally friendly.  When I received the press release of the merger, I too immediately jumped on the green washing bandwagon since the website provided very little information about the ads. I questioned who would be allowed to advertise, what was the criteria, and what kind of projects would be completed.  And most importantly what role would Polizzotto, an environmentalist, play with CBS’s new platform?

In short, was he a sell-out or a passionate environmentalist who knew how to play ball with Corporate America, but most importantly his brand of ball? And will CBS let him control the ball?

The Conflict:  Greenwashing or Championing Green Causes?

Before I cried greenwashing all over my website, I had to resolve the conflict that I was having with this whole concept.  Were these ads simply greenwashing which allows Corporate America to be rewarded for environmental commitments they didn’t undertake?   Or alternatively, was this money funding green improvements that ordinarily wouldn’t get funded?  Who else to help me with my conflict other than Polizzotto, himself?

I reached out to speak to him, not knowing what to expect. He was the only person who I felt had the answers to vindicate either my worst fears of green mistrust or my hopes for a better green built tomorrow. We spent an hour on the phone with Shannon Jacobs, the Vice President of CBS Communications. It was a tumuluous ride where I tried to pin Polizzotto down on issues when he flipped back and forth between not on the record and on the record.

Paul Polizzotto

Paul Polizzotto

Before I paint the pros and cons of EcoAds, I wanted to give you a glimpse of Polizzotto .  It is an important aspect of the story which caused more of a conflict in me. He has been involved in environmental issues for over 20 years, and is deeply passionate about the Earth. In another arena we would have been kindred spirits. When we talked about the environmental outpouring that called this project greenwashing, I asked him how he felt.  I do believe he answered me with complete sincerity when he stated he was deeply offended.  He takes his mission very seriously.

I understood what he was trying to do and it isn’t easy taking meat out of the media lion’s mouth.   But I still had questions and I had to press on to understand the concept.

Why the Merger with CBS?

I questioned him on why CBS? NBC has Universal Green. Wouldn’t they be a good candiate? He explained he was looking for a media outlet that had divisions in all aspects of media such as radio and television. CBS fit the bill.  Teaming up with CBS and its diverse platform will allow Polizzotto, as he states, “better allow us to deliver these improvements on a much greater scale to markets across the country.”

He might be on to something here.  But, let’s be honest here.  CBS stands to make a lot of money with this campaign.  If you are a large corporate advertisers, where would you rather advertise?  Where people see the EcoAd leaf or nothing?  Plus, as I understand the concept, the 10% of the ad dollars to fund projects is not coming from Corporate America.  It is coming  from the media outlet.

Will the Ads Cause Consumer Confusion?

Do these ads violate the new updated FTC rules aimed to clamp down on green marketing claims?   And believe me, for good reason.  Everyone wants a piece of green ala Brittany Spears.   In fact, in 2009, 98% of the green claims on products at Big Box retailers like Walmart and Target were false or misleading.

I explained to Polizzotto my concern about the public being duped. Wouldn’t someone think if an ad had a EcoAd leaf that the product or company was green? He didn’t agree with me and gave the public more credit than I did.

But my comeback was change the name. Don’t use the “Eco” term at all. Simply call it “Rebuild America.”  No one can argue with that because this is exactly what this advertising funding was doing.  Corporate America can still look like heroes but the word, “green” won’t be attached to their products or companies.

And adding to the confusion was the terribly written EcoAd website.  Even the information about Polizzotto’s background was misleading.  I thought his company sold janitorial supplies (“industrial environmental cleaning company aimed at helping clients become environmentally compliant”) rather than providing urban filtration services.

The website does not provide any information about how partners are chosen, what percentage of advertising dollars would be funneled into the projects, who serves as the advisors to decide which corporations get the thumbs up or down (if at all.) Basically can anyone play ball? Even the worst environmental companies?  Are they going to force Corporate America to up their sustainability measures before they can advertise?

Polizzotto explained he wouldn’t allow certain companies who have poor environmental track records to advertise under the EcoAd label.  As I pressed for guidelines, he stated when his advisors vet a company,  the Culvert Sustainability Index and the Dow Jones Sustainability Index as well as reputation risk of the company are taken into account.    In addition, when I asked about certain companies who have fair trade issues, he explained that those considerations for advertising would not be taken into account.  I did impress upon him that fair trade was still part of sustainability and those concerns should be taken into account.

What about which projects will be picked?  Polizzotto explained that he looks for environmental projects that have a 10:1 ratio (taxpayer dollars saved) but it isn’t a hard and fast rule.   All projects are third party verified for taxpayer savings, carbon dioxide footprint reduction and job creation.  As for his advisors, Polizzotto mentioned such names as the NRDC and the Climate Registry, well known groups, which gave me some comfort.

But I forgot to ask the most important question. What happens if CBS says that a particular company can advertise under the EcoAd label and Polloritto says no? Does he have full autonmy?  He seemed to imply this from our conversation but I didn’t ask the question directly.

How about CBS? CBS states as regards to transparency,

“EcoMedia-CBS is committed to transparency and accountability with all of our stakeholders. For this reason, we have engaged with key leading environmental organizations for their support and guidance as Advisors to review these guidelines. The finalized guidelines will be available for public viewing here soon.”

I still had more questions after the interview.  Why not vet out the final guidelines before you announce the program?  Would Corporate America still fund projects  if the name was changed to Rebuild America?  And why aren’t the above “advisors” listed on the website?  Where is the transparency, CBS?

On the Other Hand, Funds for Green Projects

But what the EcoAd website has is a list of who’s’ who’s of  testimonials on it explaining the  benefits of  “the leaf.”    EcoAds have the endorsement of  environmental hero, Robert Kennedy, Jr.  which state on the website,

“[e]coMedia’s EcoAd program has been one of the best ideas I have encountered to conserve and protect our natural resources. Cities get much needed funds, communities get cleaner water, air and green spaces, and corporations can put their resources to work for the betterment of society.”

As Polizzotto aptly explained,  the advertisers are going to spend the money anyways.  Why not take a piece of it for social good? I can’t argue with this thought.

Okay, now, don’t call me a softie or that I have mellowed in four years penning Green Talk.   I know as a sustainability consultant how pressed municipality, schools, and not for profits are right now. There is little funding and donations are down. So, here is the other coin. If Corporate America opts to advertise under the EcoAd umbrella to aid in the completion of environmental projects, isn’t this a good thing? Why look a gift horse in the mouth?

At the end of the interview, I believe that Polizzotto thinks that he is  a modern day Robin Hood stealing from the rich to save the poor. And believe me, Corporate America will be lining up to have him pick their pockets.

So is he the proverbial fox in the hen house?

And my opinion?  Still remain conflicted and want the name changed.

Join the conversation:

  • Where do you stand on EcoAds? Greenwash or Green brillance?
  • Conflicted like me?
  • Do you think CBS will give Polizzotto autonomy to boot certain corporate sponsor off the leaf?
  • Do you think CBS should change the name to “Rebuild America” or something similar to avoid the appearance of greenwashing?
  • Should Polloritto uses standards to up the bar for Corporate America’s sustainability efforts?

As always, be polite when you comment.

Take the Poll

I have also included a poll to the article so it you just wish to vote how you feel, go right ahead.  You can click more than one answer.

[poll id="9"]


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Comments

  1. 2

    says

    Great post! I think you hit it right on the head. The CBS program was developed with the best of intentions. But, they are ignoring the unintended consequences. That said, they know its bad to simply pick who they allow in the program since they have full discretion to ignore their own ‘standards’ if they chose to! That can’t be ignored as bad policy. (I’d be surprised to see any validly green advertisers join the program since there are so many stinkers on the roster.) A few tweaks to the program, albeit potentially costly ones, could make it an incredible program and one they could be proud of. Thanks again for a great post!
    Jennifer Kaplan´s last blog post ..Sweetgreen Greens Fast Food

    • 3

      says

      Jennifer, I agree. I thought if they simply changed the name then as long as the companies were giving money to rebuild America green, I didn’t care who gave. I find it so odd with the exception of you and an article in Red,White, and Blue which I referenced in my article, the media was so quite about this issue. So, unlike the green media. Anna

  2. 4

    says

    The idea is in itself good, but it requires that you are very strict with selecting advertisers. They should not be elected just because they want to pay, but because they really have green intentions.
    If you choose only advertisers, because they have the economy to pay, you also get all the not so “nice” advertisers, that tells a story about their products, that are not really green .

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