Editorial: Consumers will demand green promises are kept

It's not easy being green, as Kermit the Frog famously once sang. Now BP has just had an uncomfortable and potentially costly reminder of the fact.

The oil giant, which has made much of its "Beyond Petroleum" branding position, has provoked outrage in Chicago after it was granted a permit to dump more toxic discharges from one of its refineries into Lake Michigan.

Not surprisingly, the news has brought charges of hypocrisy raining down on it. Chicago's chief environmental officer has called on the company to "live up to their advertising", while a leading brand strategist claims BP has handed activists "the kind of stuff they love to use to fan the fire".

"Beyond Petroleum" has always been a very difficult advertising claim to sustain, given the business BP is in. The company describes it as "a summation of our brand promise and values". Some see it as no more than empty words, particularly in the light of an incident last year when BP admitted it was facing criminal charges after 270,000 gallons of crude oil were allowed to spread into the Alaskan tundra.

What this row proves is that, when it comes to proving your "green-ness" to consumers, actions speak louder than any advertising ever can. BP has begun running ads in local newspapers to clear up what it says are "misconceptions" about the issue. Experience suggests this will be seen as trying to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted.

When it comes to "green" issues, consumers will not forgive a corporation that proclaims one thing while seeming to do the opposite. More worrying, however, are the wider implications. If a leading company such as BP is perceived as not living up to its message, how many other advertisers are going to find their "green" credentials are greeted at best with deep suspicion, at worst with total disbelief.

With companies falling over themselves to tell people about their efforts to save the planet, a consumer backlash against what they see as "green-washing" becomes increasingly likely. BP's permit to dump may help bring it closer.