Sustainable Marketing Done Right: How to Avoid Greenwashing
The climate crisis is here — and if you’re in business, you’re likely feeling the social, political and market pressure to be more environmentally responsible.
As you take steps towards more sustainable practices there’s a lot to consider. We can’t help you with operations, but we can caution you to make real changes.
Cheating on auto emissions tests isn’t going to win hearts, minds, or market share, but it did turn Volkswagen into the standard-bearer for corporate greenwashing. Rolling out non recyclable paper straws and advertising it as an Earth-friendly move got McDonald’s called out for making false claims.
As with everything in business, it’s not just what you do, but also how you message it. Greenwashing, whether in action or marketing or both, could permanently tarnish your brand. Whether you do it unintentionally or not, you’ll still face the same consequences. When it comes to effectively messaging your environmental initiatives, here’s what you need to know.
Greenwashing is commonplace
A 2021 sweep of websites by the EU found that:
- More than half did not provide sufficient information for consumers to judge the claim's accuracy.
- 37% included vague and general statements such as “conscious”, “eco-friendly” and “sustainable,” conveying the unsubstantiated impression that a product had no negative impact on the environment.
- 59% did not provide easily accessible evidence to support its claim.
- 42% of the claims made could be false or deceptive according to the EU’s office Unfair Commercial Practices Directive (UCPD).
Greenwashing takes many forms
Not sure if you’re guilty of greenwashing? Look at the many forms it takes and compare it to your own marketing and messaging.
Here’s the short version — see if any of these apply to you:
Gratuitous environmental imagery — using images like a waterfall for a water treatment plant that relies on heavy chemicals, or a green leaf symbol for a clearcut logging operation.
Misleading labels — like calling South American beef “grass-fed” and therefore greener despite the fact that their need for pasture is destroying the rainforests.
Hidden non-environmental trade-offs — Such as launching an unbleached line of paper goods that depends on unsustainable forestry, or promoting a buy-back program as a fast fashion company.
Irrelevant claims — such as calling your avocado dip gluten free or your bottled spring water sugar-free.
Lesser of two evils approach — such as when the carbon offsets you’ve purchased don’t make the carbon emissions you produce disappear.
No evidence — Such as promoting certified energy-efficient lighting, without having any actual certificate or scientific study to back it up.
Selective disclosures — Such as calling a plastic container recyclable without saying it can only be brought to special facilities, or providing information on only the part of your product or service that’s environmentally friendly while leaving out the other part.
Vague language — “Natural” and “clean” and “Earth-conscious” don’t really mean anything, they just sound good. Consider “natural gas.”
Simply lying — such as making an environmental claim that’s simply not true (saying bottles are made from “100% ocean plastic.”)
It has to be taken seriously
Just because a company says something about a product, that doesn’t make it so —and that’s an age-old issue. But the potential harm that greenwashing can cause is on a whole other scale. We’re talking about a global, planetary disaster.
That may be why the damage to a brand found greenwashing can really stick: deceptive claims about environmental benefits have enormous consequences for your business, including:
- undermining your brand image
- alienating your shareholders and investors
- losing the trust of your target market
- triggering an investigation
- sparking a lawsuit
- losing B2B partners
It may be an innocent mistake
There are plenty of ways to stumble into greenwashing without realizing it. Inadvertent mistakes in manufacturing, production, packaging and messaging happen all the time.
Some simple examples:
Packaging: You have a terrific product that truly does boost sustainability, and you promise it’s going to be packaged in recycled plastic. But the team handling that aspect of the project makes the decision to go with a lighter-weight, non recycled plastic to save on shipping.
Supply chain: You pledged to only use sustainably forested wood, but some of the wood used for your product line turns out to come from an illegal source.
Transportation: After vowing in your national marketing materials that your goods or services are transported on an EV felt, you find out that one of your shipping partners hasn’t quite changed over from diesel yet, though they said they were going to.
Employees: Your CEO has been appearing on a number of webinars and podcasts talking about your company’s commitment to environmental stewardship. Meanwhile, your employees are complaining that everything in the cafeteria comes wrapped in plastic and is packed with chemicals.
Social media: The social media designer uses “green” icons to set off the benefits of your product in social media messaging — without checking that these are actually verified environmental benefits.
What to do instead
There are some highly effective strategies any business can take to steer clear of greenwashing pitfalls. It starts with a holistic approach that includes everyone involved, but you may want to extend well beyond that. Take a look:
The bottom line in avoiding greenwashing is communication. De-silo your departments so marketing, sales and leadership know what manufacturing and production is able to do and what it can’t. Sustainability is in large part about connecting the dots. It’s not an isolated practice: it has to be holistic to work.
Share your sustainability goals and programs with the whole company — your employees, clients, stakeholders, and investors. Be transparent about your progress. Don’t gloss over hurdles, don’t exaggerate, don’t spin. If you aren’t real about the journey you’ll never get to your destination.
Due diligence: When it comes to your suppliers, what they do is ultimately your responsibility when it comes to your product and messaging. Conduct extensive due diligence and verify the claims they make. Make sure their practices really are supporting what your company stands for. In essence you’re making sure your suppliers aren’t greenwashing you — so you don’t wind up greenwashing your market. If they are, you may want to look for new suppliers.
Insist on and invite accountability across the board — both inside and outside your organization. Don’t let anyone write a great story without backing it up with real research and evidence that’s up to date, not years and years old. Create conservations with stakeholders on mission, purpose, process, and goals. Ask your teams the hard questions.
If you can’t convince internally, it’s going to be even harder when it comes to winning hearts and minds. Ask these questions to focus on messaging and its impact. Don’t settle for mediocre answers:
- If we’re making a significant environmental achievement, how are we conveying that?
- If we’re pushing the envelope when it comes to sustainability in our industry, is it clear?
- Have we achieved clear results that back up our claims?
- Have we consulted our stakeholders and incorporated their feedback?
- Have we worked with outside experts on our real environmental impact?
- Can our claim be verified by a credible third party?
- Are we going to come off as arrogant and gloating, or humble and transparent?
- Are we being completely honest with our messaging?
- Are we being clear enough so that people can understand the importance of what we’ve achieved?
When you’re at the stage where you’re planning marketing strategies, consider bringing in outside experts. But look for firms that have experience with sustainable and environmentally forward messaging and campaigns. Not only will they have more to offer, they know where you stand on the sustainability continuum and what’s trending for the future. They’ll know how to set you apart from your competitors without making false claims, ensure you avoid undue risks, and steer you to focusing on the real impact of what you’re doing. Some may even challenge you to improve upon it.
Reach out to discuss sustainable marketing
We’ve been working with cleantech and sustainable companies since our founding — and it’s where we love to be. Reach out if you’d like to talk about starting a campaign that’s free of greenwashing and bound to build your target audience and boost your business growth. We’re all ears.