Green Dude by Leon "Firemind" on FlickrIn an undeniable rush, corporate giants are jumping on the “green” bandwagon: Wal-mart, Ford, Dow, General Electric, British Petroleum, Chevron, DuPont, to name only a few. “There’s a tendency to put a green smiley face on everything,” says Joel Makower, author of The Green Consumer. And smiley faces are rearing their heads all over the place. “We use our waste CO2 to grow flowers,” claims a Shell Oil ad.

Right …

But the concept isn’t new. In 1999, “greenwash” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary, where it is defined as: “Disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.” Naturally, green branding breeds even greener skeptics.

There are plenty of arguments for why this is inherently bad, especially if it’s just lip service — or worse, polishing up the public image of big polluters or convincing people that an environmental problem is being solved by industry when it isn’t.

On the other hand, if huge corporate ad campaigns help cultivate a green-conscious public that doesn’t stop at voting with their dollars but also votes its greenness at the ballot box, we have a better chance of moving sustainable policies forward. Greenwashing, for all the ire it raises among the truly green, might have long term political benefits.

Nobody should get away with blatantly false claims in ads. And since there’s no central agency certifying greenness, it seems a company can make a tiny step toward green in one area of their business and immediately start calling themselves Kermit the Frog. Consumers and industry should be vigilant.

There are some good watchdogs. The advertising industry relies on a system of voluntary self-regulation administered by the National Advertising Division of Council of Better Business Bureaus. (NAD is six lawyers who issue over 150 decisions a year, mostly originated by complaints from competitors about false claims in ads. Ninety-five percent of companies that use NAD comply with the agency’s decisions.) Independent critics have emerged as well: coopamerica.org, treehugger.com, corpwatch.org, greenbiz.com — among many others.

Backlash from savvy consumers is a natural and healthy outcome of the green marketing wave. Wal-Mart loudly trumpeted its “green” initiatives and was lambasted by critics for weakening the “organic” label with organics sourced in China and transported thousands of miles, spewing carbon emissions en route.

But this kind of public scrutiny can be crippling even when companies make genuine attempts to implement sustainable practices. Take Levi jeans, which quietly added organic cotton to its products over many years without fanfare. For good reason: fearing that any kind of green claim would draw attention to the ugly fact that a third of a pound of chemicals are used to grow a pound of cotton in the U.S. (yikes!), they kept their green efforts on the low-down.

On the flip side, purely financial decisions to push green products can have positive environmental impacts. Home Depot saw a double-digit increase in sales of compact fluorescent light bulbs and a 30 percent jump in sales of EnergyStar appliances in 2006. That can’t be bad, whatever the company’s motivations — but it’s not enough to absolve a company’s ungreen sins.

United Parcel Service is switching some of their fleet to hybrid-electric vehicles expected to reduce fuel consumption by roughly 44,000 gallons over the course of a year while reducing by 457 metric tons the amount of CO2 gases released annually into the atmosphere. Again, a cost savings for UPS and an image boost to boot. Still, it doesn’t mean UPS is all green, all the time. (Aren’t they brown anyway?)

But there’s a bigger point here. We certainly won’t combat global warming or other environmental concerns by ramping up our consumption — green or not green — or by convincing consumers that buying from “green” companies is all that they need to do to save the world — the goal of most of these ad campaigns. But another important victory might be won: the hearts and minds of voters.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m no fan of baseless greenwashing. I maintain a healthy skepticism about corporate maneuvering. But rather than being extra tough on companies making any effort at all, should we instead applaud even half-baked efforts to take green to the mainstream? Good advertising is about tapping into our core values and then tying behaviors to people’s identity. As we speak, the sharpest advertising minds are spending billions of corporate dollars connecting people with their inner green.

Think of the potential for consciousness-raising. I mean, you don’t see non-profits launching multi-million dollar ad campaigns about green causes — we don’t have that kind of dough. But when BP does it, however self-serving or ironic, it’s a sure bet a green message is reaching the masses. And when elections roll around, sharpened consumer consciousness may have far bigger consequences than the brand of shoes we buy.

(Thanks to communications intern Lauren Minis for her research help for this post.)

Photo: “Green Dude” by Leon “Firemind” from Flickr.com.