Not so long ago corporate America dismissed environmentally conscious consumers as hemp-wearing hippies with too little buying power to demand much attention.
Now big brands are discovering it pays to go green. In the past six weeks alone Apple Inc. launched "A Greener Apple" campaign and pledged to remove toxic chemicals from its new computer products. Home Depot Inc. unveiled an Eco-Options stamp for more than 2,500 environmentally friendly products in its stores. The NBC soap opera "Days of Our Lives" staged a green wedding, complete with soy candles and a hemp suit for the groom. And Kohl's Corp. said it plans to convert most of its California stores to solar power.
Helping the movement along is a new breed of eco-celebrity keen on making environmental causes chic. Leonardo DiCaprio has his own eco site, and Madonna composed an eco-song for this summer's celebrity-packed "Live Earth" concert. Meryl Streep guest edited The Green Guide magazine. And when Oprah deemed "Going Green" worthy of a show in April, it became official: The environmental renaissance could no longer be ignored.
"It's now sexy to be green," said Bonnie Carlson, president of Promotion Marketing Association, a New York-based trade group. "It's very fashionable for consumers to say they're doing something to help the environment."
Yet, as the green movement grows, so does the confusion.
Few labeling standards exist to tell consumers which products are really helping the environment. Terms such as "green," "natural," "environmentally friendly" and "earth smart" don't mean much on their own. Even the definition of biodegradable -- which implies a product breaks down and returns to nature -- is in dispute. Does it take a year or many decades for a product to decompose? It is hard to tell from the label.
"This is a very old marketing tactic," said Dan Howard, chair of the marketing department at Southern Methodist University in Texas, who studies advertising and consumer behavior. "You take a look at whatever is perceived as favorable in society and try to associate your brand with it. It doesn't matter whether it makes sense or not."
More and more companies are carving out a separate budget for green marketing, just as many advertisers do for cause-related marketing or online ads.
The number of green product introductions skyrocketed between 2000 and 2005, according to the latest "green living" report from Mintel International Group, a Chicago-based market research firm. Household product debuts went from none in 2000 to 153 in 2005, new personal care products soared from 17 to 207 and food and drink product introductions jumped from 83 to 228.
The report, issued last September, concluded that "the entire green space is ripe for branding efforts." It also warned that the lack of labeling standards is confusing consumers, leading to a debate over what constitutes legitimate eco-branding and what is greenwashing, or the practice of projecting a green image without actually being green.
"It took 20 years to get organic standards put into place after the government said let's do this. And it's still not clear-cut," said David Lockwood, research director at Mintel. "Even if everybody's being honest, it's not that easy."
For example, a T-shirt can claim to be made of organic cotton when on close inspection only 5 percent of its content is organic. Likewise, skin care products can tout natural ingredients and still contain plenty of chemicals.
Aveeno, a skin care line from Johnson & Johnson, built its ad campaign around the "science of active naturals," ingredients including soy, oats and shiitake mushrooms. But critics say many Aveeno products also contain ingredients that are not natural. Cadbury Schweppes pledged to battle climate change by reducing carbon dioxide emissions, yet promoted its 7Up soda as "100 percent natural," a claim critics say is unfounded since the soda contains high-fructose corn syrup, a processed sweetener.
And Target Corp., purveyor of organic food and clothing, has come under attack from consumer groups for selling toys, shower curtains and other products that contain polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, a type of plastic that has raised health concerns.
An Aveeno spokeswoman said the business "has a long history of using natural ingredients tracing back to the brand's first product in 1945" and that the company "remains committed" to developing skin care products with natural ingredients.
Cadbury Schweppes responded to criticism in January by saying it would change its label to specifically highlight those natural ingredients "for which there is no debate," namely natural flavors as well as no added colors, no artificial preservatives and no caffeine.
Target said in a statement that the company is "intensively assessing our use of PVC and the viability of alternatives and actively pursuing opportunities, in collaboration with our vendors, to reduce PVC in our products and packaging."
Efforts are under way to help consumers navigate the onslaught of green marketing claims. Natural Home magazine is making a "huge push" over the next year to educate readers on determining what's green and what's not, starting with its July issue, said editor Robyn Griggs Lawrence.
The Consumers Union routinely updates its Eco-labels.org Web site, describing which labels are backed by third-party standards and which are generally meaningless claims. Greenbiz.com also keeps tabs on companies' green claims.
With so much confusion, Burt's Bees, one of the first natural cosmetics product lines, earlier this month announced it is spearheading an effort to standardize "natural" claims in the beauty industry.
The Durham, N.C.-based company sprouted from the Maine woods two decades ago, founded by a beekeeper and a divorced mother raising twin girls on a farm without electricity. The pair built their business using beeswax, vegetable extracts and other natural ingredients in their lip balms, toothpaste, face creams and soaps.
Now the $250 million firm is owned by a private-equity group determined to keep rivals from pitching their products as natural when they are not.
A study Burt's Bees commissioned and released in May found that three out of four women do not realize that the term "natural" in personal care products is not regulated. So earlier this month Burt's Bees launched a Web site called The Greater Good ( www.burtsbees.com/thegreatergood) aimed at educating consumers. And Mike Indursky, the firm's chief marketing and strategic officer, took on the role of overseeing the Natural Products Association's effort to regulate the industry.
"There's so much confusion and so many brands saying they're natural, we just felt the time was right," said Indursky. "People care more and more about what they eat and what they put on their body. It's risen to the point where it's not a niche concern. It's a mass concern."
Katherine Emery, an Indiana native who relocated to San Francisco, is typical of the new green consumer. Newly married, she and her husband sat down two months ago to discuss how they could change the way they shop and live. She says they wound up "in the middle," somewhere between her over-the-top green friends and those who never think about it.
"I'm consciously thinking about the choices I make, the products I purchase, the waste I create," Emery said. "I'm trying to do what's doable, not trying to be a martyr or hero. If everybody takes a few simple steps, collectively it makes a difference."
Unlike the radical 1960s and '70s, this retro-green movement has more to do with personal health than railing against the establishment. In fact, the establishment is on board.
GE, once called an environmental pariah for dumping chemicals into the Hudson River, created an entire unit devoted to green principles called Ecomagination. The maker of airplane engines and power plant turbines links its top managers' pay not only to return on investment but also to reaching environmental goals.
Wal-Mart is in the midst of a wide-ranging campaign to become greener. It is cutting fuel consumption in its trucks, installing solar panels in its stores and pushing vendors to reduce wasteful packaging. Chief Executive Lee Scott even invited global-warming ambassador-at-large Al Gore to show his Academy Award-winning film "An Inconvenient Truth" at the retailer's Arkansas headquarters.
To be sure, going green still attracts some extremists. Does the world really need an environmentally-friendly bra that doubles as a shopping bag? Triumph International Japan seems to think so. And what prompted Madame Tussauds to give Prince Charles' 1989 wax figure an environmental makeover? The prince, a champion of green causes, can rest easy, it seems, now that his mannequin is made up of organic beeswax and designed by sculptors working only with their hands and in daylight to save electricity.
"It's not all monitored very well, but my own personal opinion is that it's all good," said Marti Barletta, Winnetka-based author of "Marketing to Women." "It's time the environment got some attention."