We've ruined the word green by allowing green lipstick to be applied some of our worst ecology pigs. That's why I wonder at Good Housekeeping Magazine's decision to start giving out a Green Seal of Approval now. Will it mean anything? And according to Slate Magazine's Paul Smalera, based on past practice as revealed by the New York Times, the magazine will likely require any company receiving the seal to buy ads, which calls the objectivity of the award into question.

The magazine has hired Brown & Wilmanns Environmental, a California firm that consults on eco-business, to establish criteria for the program. However, these criteria have not been made public, although Rosemary Ellis, Editor-in-chief, wrote in the April issue that "We've spent more than a year developing standards and evaluation methodology, customizing criteria for products ranging from moisturizers to MP3 players."

Good Housekeeping has been remarkably successful to date in protecting its brand; it claims that 95% of shoppers recognize the seal, and 85% are more likely to buy because of it. Its primary tool to shape public opinion is the two-year replacement/refund warranty it offers on most products that receive the seal. I presume the same warranty will apply to the Green Seal.

I wonder, however, just how much this actually costs GH. First, the products often carry their own warranty, which would be primary. Second, many people would either forget or find it too much trouble to pursue the Good Housekeeping warranty. Third, if I were Good Housekeeping, I'd demand the manufacturer cover my losses or threaten to pull the seal.

According to the Times, for a company to receive the traditional seal it must first pass testing in the magazine's 17,000 square foot lab in New York. It must also agree to buy ads in the magazine at least equaling its buys in other magazines.

The subtext here is that the seal generates significant ad income. The 2010 base rate for a full page color ad in GH is $344,475, (although no-one pays these rates; half this price wouldn't be surprising.) Nonetheless, if ad purchase was a requirement for gaining the seal you would think that with hundreds of products carrying the seal, the magazine would be thick with such ads.

Strangely, this doesn't seem to be the case. I checked out the September issue, and found only eight ads, probably less than 5% of the total, carrying the seal; four full page ads, two half-pagers, a 1/3 page and a 2/3 page. Looking over the long list of products that carry the seal, I see many which are not advertised in the magazine.


So is Smalera's skepticism warranted? Even assuming that there is some ad requirement built into the seal of approval award, I don't think Good Housekeeping's problem is atypical. Most publications face the same dilemma in some fashion; just how far can a writer go in criticizing the product of a major sponsor?

While some maintain a strict firewall between editorial and advertising, many magazines compromise to varying degrees. The advertorial is more common than you might think, and not just in magazines; newspapers, television and even Internet sites have embraced the idea. In the Internet age, where content is "free" (it's not -- the price of the advertising is rolled into every item you buy) content providers are even more dependent on advertisers, and the pressure to curry their favor is even greater.

I hope that as Good Housekeeping rolls out its Green Seal program, it becomes more open about the standards it will hold and the methodology of how these are judged.

I don't, however, believe that the program will be of great importance, though, because I believe the word green has been completely polluted.
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