When does talking about your company’s commitment to sustainability cross the line? Could you be called out for sharing good news in good faith?
If your company is making a positive contribution to the planet, you’ll want to shout about it. But, as HSBC found out when they were pulled up by the Advertising Standards Authority for ‘misleading’ ads about their green credentials, there are rules to stick to – and marketing tactics to avoid.
What exactly is greenwashing?
Greenwashing can be defined as a deliberate attempt to conceal unpleasant or incriminating facts about sustainability – an organisation might make misleading claims to deceive customers into believing that their products are environmentally friendly, for example. From marketing statements of products being made from recycled materials to having energy saving benefits – if there’s no substantial evidence of this being the case, it’s greenwashing.
A growing problem
In 2021, the European Commission ran an extensive cross-sector sweep of websites to identify instances of greenwashing. They found that 42% of company’s green claims were exaggerated, false, or deceptive and that 59% of company web pages had no easily accessible evidence to support their green claims.
Does greenwashing work?
While greenwashing techniques can be an effective deceit, consumers are becoming increasingly savvy when it comes to identifying false claims and ultimately less likely to swallow unsubstantiated sustainability pledges.
A 2022 study by Deloitte UK revealed that one in two consumers either don’t know what commitments businesses have made that they can trust, or simply do not trust businesses on climate change and sustainability issues. This is particularly frustrating for marketers as consumer demand for sustainable business measures is only continuing to increase.
For example, a study commissioned by SmartestEnergy reveals that consumers are increasingly favouring brands that make a commitment to environmental sustainability. Four out of five people described themselves as more likely to choose a brand with a positive approach to environmental sustainability. And, 90% of people agree that it is essential that society becomes more energy-conscious.
What constitutes greenwashing today?
The terms ‘eco-friendly’, ‘natural’ and ‘sustainable’ can be seen as buzzwords. They’re used with such frequency and often without any data to back them up that they become meaningless.
Take H&M’s ‘conscious’ for example. A recent study found that 60% of sustainability claims by fashion giants including H&M could be considered misleading and therefore deemed greenwashing.
Creating an ‘eco-product’ if carbon emissions are high shows that the business isn’t addressing the real issue first. It’s greenwashing for supposedly green products to be made by dirty companies – like energy efficient light bulbs produced in a factory that generates mass amounts of waste.
For example, Shell’s carbon capture plant was alleged to emit the same carbon footprint per year as 1.2 million gas-powered cars.
Branding visuals that evoke tenuous and unqualified links between the company and ‘natural’ imagery is greenwashing. Like flowers blooming out of car exhausts, or even something as basic as using the colour green or natural imagery like trees and flowers, to create an association between a brand and eco-friendliness.
Coca-Cola’s sub-brand identity for ‘Coca-Cola Life’ implies a connection to nature and sustainability. In 2020 the company ranked as the world’s No.1 plastic polluter for the third year running.
Outright lies, false claims and made-up data when expressing green credentials is obviously misleading.
This advert was banned by the UK advertising watchdog.
So, here’s how to protect yourself against making false claims.
Brands that are genuinely sustainability conscious are transparent about their impact on the environment. Their websites will contain annual reports, stats and clear data. It’s important that you back up your sustainability claims with actual numbers that can be verified. When discussing your goals to mitigate your businesses impact, create specific targets and timelines so your customers can hold you accountable.
Businesses that aren’t greenwashing will have references from credible third-party eco-organisations. Get your company certified by recognisable sources like Planet Mark or ECO, or be the corporate sponsor for a not-for-profit organisation. Whether it’s investment in clean ocean projects or carbon neutrality – include third-party accreditation to ensure you aren’t greenwashing.
Use clear labels
Genuinely sustainable products should state on the packaging precisely what materials and ingredients they contain and how they’re sourced. Don’t be vague; use simple language that is precise and detailed – such as specific units of measurement. For example, ‘70% organic cotton’ is honest and to the point, as opposed to ‘made with organic cotton’, which could be seen as glossing over the truth and trying to make a claim that isn’t founded.
Another pitfall can be using the colour green or natural imagery like trees and flowers, to imply that your products or brand are eco-friendly – if that’s not the case, rethink your visual approach.
Being transparent about your supply chain is one of the best ways to avoid greenwashing accusations. And there’s some helpful tech available to demonstrate this – for example, you could incorporate a QR code to openly share your supply chain process.
When it comes to manufacturing, waste disposal and distribution operations – be frank, honest and facilitate your stakeholders’ ability to see ‘behind the curtain’ as well.
Ultimately: be accountable, have accreditations, use clear labels and exercise traceability – that way you’ll be golden. Or should we say green?
Case study – Patagonia
The outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia is a prime example of a legitimately and admirably environmentally conscious brand. They’re transparent about their supply chain and offer resources for traceability and accountability. They’re honest about their stats and show willing intent to continue to move forward with their sustainability goals.
If you’d like some agency input on nailing your sustainability messaging or branding, drop us a line today! email@example.com