Greenwashing is an increasingly common marketing practice that consumers have been condemning for years. Let’s discuss why greenwashing is a threat to businesses and how you can steer clear of it in your marketing strategy.
Greenwashing is such a common practice these days that dictionaries have created entries for it. Meriam-Webster says that greenwashing is “the act or practice of making a product, policy, activity, etc. appear to be more environmentally friendly or less environmentally damaging than it really is.”
It is essentially a marketing tactic that reframes products, services or brands to fit them into the macrotrend of sustainability.
As a consumer, you’ve probably come face-to-face with it many times. One example is when fast fashion producers bombard us with positive messages about their “conscious collections”.
Our personal favourite is this 80s TV ad from Chevron, which tried to sell the idea of oil pipes being part of the natural habitat.
Let’s take these two businesses, a fast fashion brand and an oil company. One of them is unsustainable because of their business model (lightning-fast production, overexploitation of natural resources and promotion of overconsumption), and the other one is unsustainable because it sells a product that’s not compatible with sustainability (fossil fuels). Both marketing teams are trying to flip the narrative willingly to try and get consumers to think that their activities or products are green and ethical.
They’re greenwashing intentionally. However, as a business, you should be aware that greenwashing can happen even when you have the best of intentions.
Why your marketing should always avoid greenwashing
Consumer protection laws are starting to include greenwashing as a key topic.
For example, in the US, the SEC announced in early 2021 the creation of a Climate and ESG Enforcement Task Force charged with overseeing and verifying the veracity of ESG-related disclosures and investments.
However, if you are based in the EU or doing business within the EU area, you need to pay special attention, as this area is developing fast.
The EU Green Deal mentions that “companies making ‘green claims’ should substantiate these against a standard methodology to assess their impact on the environment.”
In the spirit of transparency and with the ultimate goal of making sustainable goods and services the norm, the European Commission is working on creating a unified framework to make sure that environmental claims are “reliable, comparable and verifiable” so that market actors (consumers, investors, companies) can have all the information they need to make green choices.
Many businesses are already suffering the legal consequences of greenwashing. Dutch airline KLM was sued in June 2022 over a campaign that allegedly violates European consumer law on greenwashing grounds. The lawsuit pointed out that KLM campaigns send the “false message that it is on the path to more sustainable flying . . . while planning continuous air traffic growth that will fuel the breakdown of our climate.”
Just a few weeks later, on July 22nd 2022, H&M was sued for “marketing and selling products that capitalize on the growing segment consumers who care about the environment, . . . in a misleading and deceptive way”.
2. Brand image
Even if one thinks they can escape the legal repercussions of their misleading green claims, stakeholders won’t forget them breaking their trust.
Consumers are mindful of the impact of the goods and services they pay for, and losing their trust after they’ve figured out they’re being the victims of greenwashing will lead to losing active consumers.
The same goes for investors and B2B partners, as they surely won’t want to be associated with the practice of greenwashing.
How to avoid greenwashing
1. Be transparent
No matter if you manage marketing in-house or you hire someone else to do it, it’s important that you’re positive that the message you’re putting out into the world and the image you want to portray reflect reality.
Transparency and honesty are key for any business trying to stick to the principles of ESG. All businesses have positive and negative impacts on the planet and people. If you exaggerate your positive impact, you’re risking making false green claims, and if you hide your negative impact, you’re actively misleading your customers.
If you’re starting to implement sustainable practices into your business but you’re not fully green yet, let your consumers know. They will appreciate you being candid.
2. Be very specific
We love sustainability, but the very term is quite vague. We recommend you avoid using vague language and buzzwords without further explanation.
Gold is a natural product that comes from the Earth, but extracting gold conventionally requires substances that are harmful to nature and to people. Similarly, many avocados are bio or organic because they’ve been grown without conventional pesticides or fertilizers, but they require a lot of water to grow, and their hydric footprint drains water reserves in and around avocado farms.
Tags like “bio” and “natural” are fine when they’re used in the right context, so don’t use them as if they were synonyms with “sustainable”. Be very mindful of the words you use, their connotations and their actual meanings.
3. Communicate relevant information
If you produce plastic bottles and in your marketing you don’t talk about the plastic in your bottles, but about the recycled cardboard boxes used to transport them, you’re tiptoeing around the real issue with your product and trying to mislead the consumer.
It might be true that the cardboard is recycled. It can be carbon neutral, for all the consumer cares. From a sustainability point of view, the main piece of information that would be relevant for your buyers has to do with plastic.
Try to identify which areas of your business are the most impactful and communicate those challenges openly.
4. Don’t tell half-truths
Besides being relevant, your claims should be comprehensive and refer to your entire business.
Just as we discussed earlier with the example of fast fashion promoting “conscious collections”, don’t try to sell your entire offering as sustainable if only a fraction of it is.
Of course, you might be in the process of greenifying your business and you might not be where you want to be in terms of sustainability. You can absolutely still market your accomplishments, but be mindful of the messaging and don’t try and make consumers believe it applies to your entire business when it doesn’t.
If you feel uneasy about the green claims that you want to introduce into your marketing, it might be time to reassess your strategy, partners and suppliers.
5. Back up your claims
Certifications don’t always define how much effort a business is putting into sustainability, as quite often these are awarded after a very costly and time-consuming process that small businesses or sustainable businesses with large overheards can’t afford.
However, it’s always good to work with third parties, like sustainability consultants, in making sure you’re not stepping over the line with your green claims.
6. Think about the consumer
Your customer isn’t an enemy you’re trying to trick. They want to purchase goods and services that align with their values without thinking that they may be misled.
Marketing can be ethical. Listen to them, learn about the things they care about, and how they like their products to be presented to them.