Sustainability: avoiding the greenwash cycle

It’s great that sustainability has made it to the top of many organisation’s agendas, and for most businesses a focus on sustainability is not just about words and sentiment, but in actions as too. With all the work that businesses are doing to move the dial on sustainability, it is only right that they want to shout about all the great progress and effort they’re making. Unfortunately, some organisations haven’t been transparent to the realities of their efforts, or worse have in some cases even made their communications purposefully confusing to distract audiences from the truth. Whilst not a new term, this has caused an acceleration of what is known as ‘greenwashing’. In this article we’re going to unravel the seven sins of greenwashing and how to make sure you don’t get caught up in the cycle.

What is green washing?

Also known as ‘Green Sheen’ greenwashing is when organisations put a marketing spin on their sustainability efforts or credentials, to either protect or increase the sales of products that are less desirable in eco-terms. The combination of little or highly complex external verification, and huge pressure for organisations to step up to sustainability, has meant that for some the temptation to greenwash is too much. However, as we all know, honesty is the best policy and in most cases the truth surfaces at some point, usually making the business look worse than if they’d been more transparent at the start.

An infamous greenwashing example that hit the headlines came when car manufacturer, Volkswagen was found to have fitted their cars with a device that could detect when tests were being carried out, and changed the cars performance to lower carbon emissions. In reality, the cars were emitting up to 40 times the allowed rate of nitrogen oxide than regulations allowed. When the truth surfaced, Forbes estimated that the scandal cost the brand $34.5 billion and this is likely to only cover the tangible costs, and not the long term brand reputational damage.

Of course Volkswagen aren’t the only car brand to have got caught up in greenwashing, Aston Martin were identified as one of the brands that funded a report which purposefully misled consumers about the CO2 emissions produced during the manufacture of electric vehicles, in response to the UK announcing that it would ban the sale of internal combustion engine vehicles from 2030.

Greenwashing isn’t always quite as overt as these examples, sometimes an organisation tries to do the right thing, but still comes unstuck when they communicate their sustainability work. Following the call to ban plastic straws, Starbucks were quick to promote their new straw-less lid, but unfortunately they omitted to mention that it contained more plastic by weight than the original straw. Whereas Walmart were so keen to promote their ‘Go Green’ sustainability campaign they neglected to make sure their claims could stand up to scrutiny, only to get called out for donating money to political candidates who regularly voted against environmental issues.

Avoiding getting caught up in the greenwash cycle

Many businesses are genuinely making efforts towards a sustainable future and it’s important that they step forward and promote the actions they’re taking. The purpose of this communication is twofold, as not only does it help position their products or services ahead of less eco-friendly competitors, but also in order to make the changes our planet needs we all need to continue to step up to our responsibilities and keep talking about the progress being made.

So, just how do you avoid getting caught up in the greenwashing trap? Here are our top tips for marketers when considering their environmental communications:

#1 Choose imagery carefully

Unusually for us, when it comes to talking about sustainability we recommend dialling down on your creative. Don’t get too creative with suggestive pictures that may look nice but have no basis in fact or may accidentally allude to something incorrect. For example, flowers appearing from an exhaust pipe whilst a nice concept does not convey an appropriate story about the carbon impact of fuel.

#2 Mind your language

There is a lot of jargon when it comes to sustainability so be clear on what you’re claiming, stick to plain language and if need be, define your terms.

#3 Honesty is the best policy

Try not to tell part of the story, ignoring the bits where you’ve made less progress, it’s far better to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

#4 Validate your claims

Think carefully about what you’re claiming. It may be true that your product has the lowest emissions for your industry, but if your industry is all pretty terrible for the environment then say so and be clear on what you’re doing to make things better.

The 7 deadly sins of greenwashing

And while you’re focused on getting your communications right, here are seven crucial sins to avoid, according to strategist and politician Ed Gillespie:

  1. The Hidden Trade-off: suggesting a product is “green” based on an unreasonably narrow set of attributes without paying attention to other important environmental issues.
  2. No Proof: making an environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification.
  3. Vagueness: making claims that are so poorly defined or broad that their real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer.
  4. Worshiping False Labels: promoting a claim in a way, that purposefully gives a false impression, either through words or images.
  5. Irrelevance: making a claim that may be truthful but which is also unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products.
  6. Lesser of Two Evils: making claims that may be true within the product category, but that risks distracting consumers from the greater environmental impact of the category as a whole.
  7. Sin of Fibbing: making environmental claims that are simply false.

The rise of greenwashing

The growing consumer awareness and appetite for more eco-friendly products has encouraged organisations to increase their promotion of sustainability credentials and as a result increased greenwashing. Consumers have become even more sceptical of when brands are telling the truth, making it a harder challenge for consumers to differentiate and make the right buying choices.

In our next blog we’ll be focusing on best practice in communicating sustainability and guiding you through promoting your progress to protect the planet, in the meantime if you’d like some help navigating your green story, talk to us.