Rachel Carson, Greenpeace and… Toyota? Toyota’s Prius, to be exact.

It may seem spurious to place a car company among the legion of activists and non-profits that have driven the decades-old environmental movement, but judging by Prius’ third generation advertising campaign, Toyota wouldn’t protest if we did.

Toyota has been working since 1997 to situate itself on the leading edge of corporate environmental reform – to achieve “harmony between man, nature and machine,” as the Prius tagline goes.

In 1997 Toyota made a bet. The car company produced a hybrid vehicle when the market wasn’t ready. Fourteen years later it has paid off: The Prius is the world’s bestselling hybrid and Toyota topped this year’s list of Interbrand’s Best Global Green Brands.

While numerous multinationals have orchestrated similar brand reputations, few can boast of marketing green products before consumers were interested.

But what makes the Prius story remarkable is the message that dwells in the subtext:

With today’s proliferation of green marketing and eco-friendly products, brands aren’t just reacting to the environmental movement – they’re driving it.

Green marketing or greenwashing?

As advertising agencies and the brands they represent tune in to demands for social and environmental responsibility, green jobs, green products, and green revenue are increasing – even as what “green” actually means is up for debate.

The term “greenwashing,” coined in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westervelt, refers to advertising claims that deliberately mislead consumers about a brand’s environmental track record.

While its prevalence is unmistakable and a bevy of guidelines and green certifications exist, the line between dubious greenwashing and legitimate eco-marketing remains blurry.

Some labels are more legitimate than others. The middle row is made up of unverified eco-labels; the ones in the bottom and top rows are official.

The jury is also out on whether greenwashing actually works. An Ipsos study found that consumers are increasingly sceptical of self-proclaimed green brands. Other reports, however, indicate that people generally think favourably of brands advertised as green and can’t distinguish between FTC-approved advertisements and blatant greenwash.

Even if brands cross the greenwash threshold, some experts argue that eco-marketing forces accountability. Writing in Grist magazine, Auden Schendler, VP of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company, suggested that “[p]ainting a business green inevitably steers it toward improved practices.”

True or not, it’s clear that green marketing has moved from the fringes to the mainstream, thanks in part to some unexpected advocates.

From picket lines to product lines

The Body Shop makes extensive use of eco-marketing

In a 2005 article in Ethics & the Environment, sociologist Anne Marie Todd argued that consumers have begun to care about environmental issues in part because of marketing campaigns.

Call it a kind of corporate environmental education: As more brands adopt environmentalism, according to Todd, so too do consumers.

The article zeroes in on three personal hygiene brands: Tom’s of Maine, Burt’s Bees, and the Body Shop. These brands have wholeheartedly embraced an “environmental aesthetic” (both in terms of how the products are manufactured and how they’re marketed) that locates the value of nature in its beauty.

The products are packaged with recycled materials and are made of organic ingredients. So, if we value the environment for its beauty and biodiversity, and if a product’s brand and production reflect those values, then we in turn align ourselves with that environmental ethic when we sign on as customers.

As Todd explains, consumers are encouraged “to make the connection between ethics of production and the aesthetics of the… products, which fosters an understanding of the relationship between consumer choices and environmental beauty.”

Essentially, Todd argues that we’re learning about environmental stewardship through our toiletry kit.

Customer demand or corporate reform?

So here’s the chicken-and-egg question: Are brands teaching consumers to care about the environment, or are consumers demanding environmental responsibility, pushing brands toward green marketing at best and greenwashing at worst?

During the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Yvo de Boer of the UN climate effort argued that governments can’t force restrictions and costs on their citizens when citizens aren’t demanding them.

Toyota Prius

As summarized in Harvard Business Review, Boer argued that business leaders should “spend more time on delivering attractive, low-cost, low-carbon solutions, and less on waiting for some documents to be signed.” In other words, brands should take it upon themselves to inform customers about greener alternatives and make environmentalism matter to them.

HBR contributor Nicholas Eisenberger suggests that not only is it possible to educate consumers about best environmental practices, but that it makes good business sense to do so. Just ask Toyota.

It always comes back to the polar bears

Toyota isn’t the only brand that has learned the value of creating a market for sustainability.

During the UN conference Coca-Cola and Unilever presented a joint manager’s guide to addressing climate change, emphasizing that the consumer goods sector “has a depth of expertise in understanding consumers and in inspiring them to change their behaviour.”

In practice this means making environmentally friendly products available and then using content to teach customers how to use those products to change their habits (as Unilever did in Turkey with its Cleaner Planet Plan).

One benefit of green marketing is that Unilever, Coke and Toyota can afford to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to raise environmental awareness, unlike most non-profits.

It’s true that perception and performance don’t always align. We need only look as far as Toyota; despite its success with Prius, the company’s fleet-wide fuel efficiency rates have actually dropped since 1985 due to increased truck and SUV sales.

It’s also true that many brands spend more on marketing themselves as green than implementing sustainable practices.

But there’s no denying that the environment matters more to consumers than ever, and if it’s thanks in part to Coke’s cuddly polar bear ads, maybe that’s even better than the real thing.