5 Ways to Avoid Greenwashing in Marketing
Just kidding, there are no 5 ways. Now that I have your attention, note that none of this will be easy.
The ground rules for marketing green products, services and initiatives are still being written. It’s not always black and white. However, as marketers look to reach audiences in more engaging and authentic ways, we need to be hyperconscious about making (sometimes well-intentioned) empty promises or risk doing your business more harm than good.
As a rule of thumb: If you’re wondering if a campaign is greenwashing, it’s probably greenwashing.
First things first: What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing is a blanket term to describe false or unproven claims in a company’s environmental records. It comes in many forms, including selective disclosure where a company embellishes information related to positive environmental performance or conceals data about its negative environmental impacts. Some companies also use eco logos and labels that are not associated with accredited organisations.
In marketing, greenwashing is designed to hoodwink consumers into purchasing a product or service. It’s a big problem, especially when there are companies trying to do the right thing. If marketers continue to undermine their efforts with greenwashing, those companies have less incentive to do the hard work of actually fighting climate change.
Business incentives for going greenCompanies might feel pressure to make claims about their environmental efforts, even if those claims are false. After all, there are clear incentives for going green.
Nielsen reported that 73% of millennials are more likely to purchase a product if it’s environmentally friendly and sustainable. What’s more, a study from Deutsche Bank revealed that companies with a more significant proportion of positive press announcements (over a span of 12 months) outperformed the MSCI World Index by 1.4% a year.
In a world where sustainability is becoming more and more important to consumers, brands trying to capitalise on the trend often aim to outdo one another with eco-credentials. But in a rush to be perceived as environmentally responsible, companies often exaggerate, spin or simply make things up.
Calling for accountability
In 2019, the Advertising Standards Authority banned a Ryanair ad claiming it was the airline with Europe’s lowest emissions without sufficient evidence.
What do Ryanair, Hyundai, Shell and Oatly have in common? They have all been ruled ‘greenwashing’ by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The ASA is just one of many watchdogs cracking down on misleading environmental claims. Its Environment and Climate Change Project brings together guidance on greenwashing, shining a brighter regulatory spotlight on such advertising issues.
Brands are also under increasingly tight scrutiny from governments around eco-friendly language that seems opaque and misleading. In Norway, for example, the national consumer protection agency warned fast fashion giant H&M that the Higg Materials Sustainability Index, a tool they used in their marketing, “is not sufficient as a basis for the environmental claims.”
Marketers need to be conscious that the consequences of greenwashing go far beyond a bruised reputation. Greenwashing will not only put you at risk of falling foul of regulators, but it also fuels perceptions of corporate hypocrisy, affecting your customers’ experience with your product or service itself. Companies that are perceived to be greenwashing suffer an economically significant decline in their customer satisfaction score.
4 things to keep in mind to avoid greenwashing
Does this mean companies should stop all efforts to be more environmentally accountable? Of course not. You just need to keep in mind that the hard work of producing an environmentally conscious product or service comes well ahead of the communications.
Here are a few things to consider to avoid greenwashing in your marketing efforts.
1. Use easy-to-understand messaging
Put yourself in the shoes of the average public member who likely does not know as much as you do about the data or science behind the claims. All information must be presented in an objective and accurate way that would not mislead consumers. Avoid ambiguous language.
2. Consider the whole product or service life cycle
This means measuring total environmental impact as a cradle-to-grave process. For products, this includes everything from raw materials, to production, distribution, consumer use, and finally, disposal by the consumer. The end-to-end approach to sustainability considers a wide range of activities, making cross-functional cooperation essential.
3. Take care not to overclaim or omit key information
How do you know if something is an overclaim? When it lacks precision. Be as precise as possible with the science, data and processes and provide a holistic picture.
4. Back up objective claims with evidence and transparency
This is a no-brainer. Always ensure that supporting evidence is clearly presented and not buried in the fine print. Base any claims on the best-agreed standards available, reassessing and updating as necessary.
In summary, when you’re making a claim, keep it simple and precise. Limit it to what you’re trying to draw attention to, and beware of making exaggerated claims unless you are certain they can be substantiated.
Social and environmental responsibility should not be a competitive sport
The world is seeing a growing interest in driving a wide range of great sustainability initiatives, from decarbonisation efforts to sustainable finance products that channel capital towards companies spearheading such initiatives. One of the worst consequences of greenwashing is the derailing of this hard-earned momentum. Marketers have a role to play in keeping up with trends and regulations around the green movement.
If you’re interested in moving beyond greenwashing toward real change, you’ll need to act with others. Addressing the climate emergency will require business model transformation and engagement with a wide network of partners. Construct Digital is here to help.