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Stop, Look, Listen

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is updating its guidelines on green claims in advertising and has published a checklist that all marketing claims to environmental responsibility should follow.  Any attempts to promote goods or services as being environmentally friendly should be “clear, accurate, relevant and verifiable”.  Not a million miles from the long-standing guidelines that all advertising should be “legal, decent, honest and truthful”.  But that’s no bad thing; imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all!

Imitation can also be a habit: the original 2006 Defra guidelines were called “The Green Claims Code”, which will sound strangely familiar to anyone who learnt about the Green Cross Code on road safety at school in the 1970s, especially to the geeks among us who know David Prowse was the Green Cross Man before he put on the mask and turned into Darth Vader!

How far these guidelines will reduce “greenwash” remains to be seen, as Fred Pearce considers in his regular Guardian column on the topic.  But Defra’s attempts to amuse advertising geeks with a bit of subtle name-checking do show how strong the original Green Cross Code campaigns were.  No-one who was at school back in the day will have forgotten them.  This was a legal, decent, honest and truthful campaign that gave children useful knowledge to serve them throughout their lives.  At least, it was mostly truthful.  The Green Cross Man didn’t actually materialise whenever a child tried to cross a road at an inappropriate place, but I don’t remember anyone complaining!

If we want to instil good environmental behaviour as second nature (excuse the pun), then the best place to start is getting the message to the young, just as it was in the 1970s.  One of the most effective ways to do that is in the mentored environment of the schools, colleges and youth centres where young people spend most of their time.

Placing the message directly where peer groups and mentors will reinforce it is as effective now as it has ever been.  A well designed campaign to encourage recycling and waste minimisation could stick in young people’s minds for as long as the Green Cross Code has.  And if it doesn’t sound like something that today’s generation would see as cool, you probably never realised that the Green Cross Man would ever stick in your mind, way back in the day!

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