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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Guest Post: 3M - Principles for Avoiding Greenwashing

Keith Miller is Manager of Environmental Initiatives and Sustainability at 3M, based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Mr. Miller leads the Environmental Initiatives and Sustainability Group within the Environmental, Health and Safety Operations (EHS Operations) organization at 3M. He is responsible for 3M environmental initiatives including Environmental Targets for 2010 (ET’10), Pollution Prevention Pays (3P) and Greenhouse Gas Management. He has been involved in sustainability activities at 3M since 1995 and represents 3M in various environmental and sustainability organizations including the Global Environmental Management Initiative (GEMI) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).

I spoke at the Conference Board’s annual Business and Sustainability Conference in DC last week. In response to a question on how at 3M we accurately represent the environmental attributes of our products I outlined some principles that we have found very valuable. They have become embedded in the culture at 3M as business as usual, and Kevin asked me if I would share them in a guest post. So here goes - I hope you find them as valuable as we have at 3M. Perhaps they will apply for you in the environmental space, but also in other areas of product marketing claims.
Firstly, there are no blanket statements that ‘this product is green’. We avoid using broad environmental claims such as "safe for the environment" or environmentally friendly". Claims must be specific and be clear to customers or the general public.

Secondly, claims must be relevant to the product. For example, claiming that a product is cadmium free, when the product has never contained cadmium, and nor have any of its competitors, is not relevant.

Thirdly, that there must be compelling data to substantiate the claim. We need to know the claim is technically accurate.

I think that these are three very important principles. They probably shouldn’t need saying, but I think that they do and I think they will go a long way to avoid greenwashing. At 3M, we implement these principles through our Environmental Marketing Claims Committee. The committee reviews and approves the environmental claims from our business units.

These principles are communicated in our Environmental Marketing Claims Policy. This policy and our review process were established way back in 1990 to ensure that 3M has a coordinated, consistent and responsible approach to environmental claims. I think that it is important for companies marketing in the "green space" to have a business process in place that covers environmental claims.


  1. Keith,

    It’s good that Kevin invited you to talk about 3M. I was writing about the 3Ps long before you joined the company and have often wondered why 3M is no longer acknowledged as an environmental leader. Is it, perhaps, that your laudable aversion to greenwashing has made you a little too shy of talking about your accomplishments? If so, that would be a pity. You have bragging rights and should be asserting them!

  2. Peter,

    Thank you for your comment. I agree that we have been a little too shy of talking about our accomplishments. In fact, I receive a similar comment nearly every time I make a presentation at a conference. I'm afraid our accomplishments are not widely recognized. This is the downside of more conservative, Midwestern values where you don't brag. We've largely relied on third party endorsements of our environmental leadership. However, I do agree that we can be more assertive in talking about our accomplishments and without fear of greenwashing as well. Please look for 3M to be telling our own story about our environmental and sustainability accomplishments in the near future.


  3. Keith,
    I'd love to hear more details about two elements of 3M's 3P program:
    1) how have you engaged the wider employee base rather than just the early adopters/ and
    2) Many people can't get beyond the first round of "low hanging fruit" and yet 3M has managed to continue to find savings from pollution prevention for decades. How have you managed this?
    Please respond to me at if possible, as well as within this blog. Thank you.
    Lorinda Rowledge, Ph.D.

  4. Lorinda,

    Great questions regarding our 3P program.

    1) We've engaged a wider employee base in a number of ways. Originally, when we started 3P back in 1975, we communicated the program to all 3M employees, not just manufacturing, as pollution prevention at the source could be practiced by everyone. This is our same approach to innovation so it fit with our 3M culture. 3P received top-down CEO support from its start and saving $10 million in 1975 was helpful in gaining business support as well.

    Another milestone as the 3P matured was providing specific higher level awards to encourage projects from various areas throughout the company. In addition to our 3P Excellence award for innovation in pollution prevention, we added the following 3P awards:
    Green Step - for new products or product reformulations with less environmental or energy impacts
    Guardian - for reducing or eliminating toxics from a product or process Mobius - for reducing packaging and packaging waste
    Mover - for reducing transportation miles

    We also have linked 3P with our Lean Six Sigma program. As we develop projects than improve yields to save costs, they also result in reducing waste. In 2001, Six Sigma became a worldwide company initiative and we linked 3P with this initiative to further our 3P efforts.

    2) As mentioned above, linking 3P with Lean Six Sigma has allowed us to continue to find new 3P projects as we continue to improve our products and processes. In fact, last year was a record year for 3P with over 600 employee-driven projects along with $91 million in savings. Many of these projects are energy-related as we have energy teams in each of our facilities looking for projects to reduce energy costs and associated greenhouse gas emissions. This year we received the Energy Star Sustained Excellence Award for our Energy Management for the fifth consecutive year.

    Another aspect is our Life Cycle Management (LCM) process. Every new product must go through a LCM review as part of our New Product Introduction system. The LCM process looks at all environmental, health, safety and energy impacts throughout a products entire life cycle from raw material acquisition through manufacturing to customer use/disposal. As we develop new products (and we will launch over 1000 new products this year), we are continuously reducing the EHS and energy impacts of our products. Thus, we are eliminating pollution at its source through new product and process design.