EDF's decision to review its sustainability-driven marketing strategy (Marketing, 12 May) may mark a turning point in energy firms' use of environmental themes in their advertising.
Only a few years ago, it was the norm for these companies to base big campaigns on their latest 'renewables' project, such as E.ON's 2007 'Winds of change' ad publicising its Robin Rigg Wind Farm off the coast of Scotland.
However, it is EDF that has been most committed to communicating its 'green' credentials, through both its sponsorship of the London 2012 Games and last year's much-derided 'Green Britain Day' initiative.
Yet, the marketing focus taken by rivals, including British Gas, RWE-owned Npower and E.ON on energy efficiency and cutting customers' bills, rather than saving the planet, has forced EDF to reconsider its strategy across Europe.
The recent BP oil-rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has reinforced the argument that green claims should not be made lightly. Although it has not pushed the message for several years, BP has been accused of hypocrisy over its 'Beyond Petroleum' positioning.
Honesty the best policy
Jeremy Davies, director of brand and communications at E.ON, now concedes that using flowery images of an ecological utopia will do little to convince consumers, and that energy companies must be more honest about how their businesses work.
'Consumers are not that dumb: an energy company is a big emitter of carbon,' he says. 'People were surprised with our "Why?" campaign (about why an energy provider would want customers to use less energy), but it is about being transparent, clear and bold.'
There has been a clear shift in behaviour from brands, according to Jo Kenrick, who heads the Marketing Society's May Day Alliance - an initiative aimed at ensuring greater transparency in green claims in marketing.
She says that brands previously entered sustainability projects thinking 'we should tell people about it', even though they were not particularly significant, but now view sustainability as more of a business challenge than a communication opportunity.
'All that marketing is the wrapping paper. Marketers are now focusing on what is inside the box,' says Kenrick, pointing to companies such as Procter & Gamble and Marks & Spencer, which have ensured their operations have become more sustainable before communicating the changes.
The shift in attitudes extends to consumers as well, according to Alex Hesz, author of the book Guilt Trip: From Fear to Guilt on the Green Bandwagon and client services director at ad agency Modernista!
He claims there is an increasing acceptance of unsustainable practices by brands such as Primark as long as they are honest about the situation. 'We are asking to be lied to if we demand a purity of environmental principles from energy brands, so we know we can't demand it,' he says. 'They would be forced to talk about what they "intend" to do, which would simply come across as duplicitous.'
Davies agrees that while consumers are becoming more aware of sustainability issues, the concept of green has become 'blurred' and carries a far greater risk on a marketing level.
The public has become more cynical toward what it perceives as shameless 'greenwash', but a more pragmatic attitude prevails. This means consumers are prepared to forgive net polluters, so long as they do not attempt to hide what would otherwise be guilty secrets.
Any energy marketer still seduced by the thought of a marketing campaign littered with picturesque images of wind turbines therefore needs to be sure that their company's other practices will stand up to scrutiny.
60% Amount EDF aims to reduce the intensity of CO2 emissions from its electricity production by 2020
33% Proportion that Npower (as part of RWE) aims to reduce the carbon intensity of its electricity production by from 2000 levels by 2015
1/3 Level by which E.ON claims it has cut carbon emissions from power generation since 1990. The company says it 'wants to go a lot further'
30% Proportion by which British Gas (as part of Centrica) aims to reduce the carbon intensity of its UK power generation by 2020