Green Language

What does Green Language look like Today?
by John Rooks

Language shapes the way we think and determines what we can think about,” said linguist Benjamin Whorf. Since advertising is the most read text in our culture (we’re hit with between 300 and 3,000 messages each day), the role that advertising’s language plays in shaping thinking about sustainability should not be ignored.

To look at this issue in a bit more depth, we surveyed 100 green print advertisements from both mainstream and
green-minded publications. The ads were for a variety of goods and services, including building products, food and beverages, automobiles, airlines, investing, electronics, detergents, pet food, and cosmetics among others.

Understanding the most commonly used green words of today, reveals insight into the communications trends of tomorrow. As a marketer, understanding ubiquity and saturation is one of the first steps in identifying what’s next. It is then important to recognize that the pulse of modern language provides the market advantage of differentiation.

Emotion vs. Science
The advertising survey bisected operative words (headlines and positioning content in copy) and word families (e.g.,
carbon, CO2, and carbon offset were grouped as one set) into Emotive (“change,” “progress,” “clean”) and Scientific (“carbon,” ”planet,” ”hybrid”) categories. Hyphenated words, like ”eco-friendly,” were considered emotive. We also looked at language intent: Was the phrase intended to be emotional or scientific? For example, in nearly all cases “green” was used emotionally or aspirationally, not scientifically.

At this primary grouping, science-derived words were used 168 times as opposed to emotional words at 116. This
represents marketers’ awareness that prevailing consumers are looking for factual data when making purchases in green contexts. That said, most of the science was fairly vapid, relying more on the language of science than on science itself. This means that science, as a brand differentiator, still has unclaimed potential.

More interesting, however, is the emotive side of the ledger. “Green” was toppled as the leading operative word in its
own category of goods and services. “Less” is today’s operative. “Less” represented the most common linguistic turn
of phrase, showing up 28 times in 100  ads (“green” appeared 23 times). The phrase “go green” is all but abandoned
today. “Green” and its variations are telltales of greenwashing. Still, it seems that it has been relegated to serving as a shortcut to define the category, but doesn’t offer much depth beyond that.

Is “Less” the New “Green”?
Maybe. Green marketing often takes the shape of its current cultural condition. When energy (fuel, etc.) prices were
painfully inflated, marketing language (and solutions) turned to saving money and distance efficiency. Way back in
2008, one could be green and indulge at the same time, as long as they drove a hybrid to get there. Today, energy prices have fallen, but less immediately controllable economic hardships have replaced them. The current condition is one of anti-overindulgence, simplicity (noted eight times, it is a form of “less,” but not classified as such in our survey), and doing more with well...less. This is a cultural condition of the economic turn. “Less” is on the lips of CEOs, school administrators, advertising sales teams, governors, and kitchen-table budgeters. And, apparently, green marketers have picked up on this fact. No surprise there. But, “less” in these ads is a factor of economics, not life philosophy. This was the case with “green” too, where it was arguably more about social status and trend than a
change in values.

It’s odd how a phrase intrinsically linked to anti-consumption can become the most popular word in marketing goods and services. Like “green,” this is the co-opting of the LOHAS language by the mainstream all over again.

But advertising has never been accused of being “accurate” language, so in a sense what’s odd is that we expect authenticity to play a role in it at all. Or at the very least, we should.

Most advertising is based on use of the superlative. “Very” lost its meaning through overuse, so we installed “very, very” into the language set. “Yes” has had to become “absolutely.” “Green” is currently interviewing for hyper-replacements, both in terms of movement and language. This is evolutionary language theory at its quickest. It will be interesting to watch “less” become a superlative. And, of course, we await lesswashing — where the consumption of less is a contrived illusion.

Encouraging consumers to consume less is an emerging marketing strategy. Engineering ways for them to have the same reward consumption offers is a sustainability strategy.

Author Edward Abbey said, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” In more theoretic terms, according to ecopedagogy, sustainability is not being realized because it represents the antithesis to the political, economic, and cultural status quo of the powerful forces needed to fuel growth. The ‘less’ backlash is a response to this and marks a real milestone along the pathway to culture change and LOHAS ubiquity.

What is a LOHAS Ad?
What’s the difference between a mainstream ad and a LOHAS ad? Maybe a LOHAS ad is a gadfly. A LOHAS ad may be one that challenges the status quo of not just health and sustainability, but of advertising itself. Maybe LOHAS advertising needs to do more than promote and educate. On some level, LOHAS ads have both an opportunity to simultaneously inspire and make a mess.

Shakespeare said, “Past is prologue.” So how can we use these linguistic trends as an opportunity to create more authentic culture change stemming from the LOHAS business community and emerge into the mainstream (as opposed to mainstream marketing to LOHAS)? There are some new frontiers that are ready for marketing to embrace.
• Local as the new niche market (“The 100 Mile Diet” goes mainstream)
• Overwhelming positivity
• Authentic “me” instead of purchased badges of community
• The acquisition of experience over products
• Activist-based marketing (not guerilla, rather marketing that has a purpose beyond marketing)

Advertisements tend to signify cultural trends. They enforce classic structures of economy and politics. But they can also subvert the same. We are advocating for LOHAS marketers to push harder now more than ever to promote their goods and services through the principles and ideals of the LOHAS marketplace, not just the associated signs and signifiers. Move beyond language, go deeper into the trends, and create new levels of business consumer dialogue and engagement.

In 1968, when Garrett Hardin wrote “The Tragedy of the Commons” he was describing a particular dilemma in which individuals acting independently in their own self-interest ultimately destroy a shared resource—even where it’s clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen. Today’s green ads may be serving the interest in meeting a company’s quarterly bottom line, but few are acting in the interest of communal sustainability.

Unfortunately, advertising shapes American culture; it shapes our image of ourselves. But it is through deconstructing the codes of advertising that we can begin to learn the limits of these codes. And, in turn, improve the odds of sustainability, social equity, and enduring value.

John Rooks is the founder of The SOAP Group (Sustainable Organization Advocacy Partners), an advocacy company developing brands and communication programs. More at