LLPR’s Sam Bird gives us the low down on the greenwashing epidemic – and what brands can do to communicate their credentials within their sustainability journey in a transparent manner, which evokes consumer confidence.
‘Greenwashing’ is a buzzword which has begun to appear more frequently in the PR and communications industry in recent years, but what does it actually mean? And, more importantly for our clients, what are the potential trip hazards it creates?
The recent increase in widespread climate activism has seen the sustainability trend take off, especially amongst a younger demographic that is often labelled as more ‘woke’ (whether that is good or bad is up to your interpretation I suppose!)
Understandably, this has led to a considerable increase in consumer desire to support sustainable companies and purchase sustainably sourced products, with a study *1 showing that that 70% of Gen-Z try to shop ‘green’ from ethical companies and another *2 discovering that 73% of millennials would pay more for items from sustainable brands. The consumer demand has led to more brands attempting to tap into this market, with many consequently being found guilty of ‘greenwashing’.
What is Greenwashing?
Essentially, greenwashing is a form of marketing spin whereby companies use environmental messaging to persuade the public (sometimes deceptively) that their products and values are more environmentally conscious than they actually are. Companies will share and exaggerate misleading environmental credentials with the intention of attracting an environmentally invested audience.
Despite common belief, greenwashing has actually been around for some time, tracing back to the 1960s during which American electric companies used clever ads that marketed nuclear power plants as environmentally friendly and safe. Subsequently, greenwashing has taken place for many decades, with American environmentalist Jay Westerveld first coining the term in 1986, but it is the last 15 years which have seen this dishonest practice take on a new far-spreading life of its own.
The widespread impact has been well documented by Monique Goyens, Director General at European Consumer Organisation, who said “Greenwashing is everywhere and has exploded as it is an attractive ploy for marketers”, explaining that there is now a “huge confusion between truly green products and greenwashed ones”.
What can cause Greenwashing?
The main source of greenwashing is companies failing to evidence their sustainability claims; this is what proves that their environmental credentials are both accurate and display a real intention to make a positive difference. It is not commonly known that providing evidence is a requirement and establishes the brand’s credibility, rather than simply stating that a product is “responsibly sourced” or “eco-friendly”. Genuine companies will be more than happy to provide accurate, publicly available information on energy consumption, water pollution, emissions, etc.
Marketers frequently use certain sustainable buzzwords that position their brand as environmentally conscious which are actually very vague and easily misleading. Many of these terms do not even have agreed definitions from UK or US regulators so are used in a vague context, when in actual fact, consumers should be informed how these credentials are actually achieved. These include ‘responsibly sourced’, ‘eco-friendly’, and ‘natural’ to name a few.
It may take you by surprise, but when product labels or ad campaigns use environmental imagery such as nature and animals, it can be a deliberate act of greenwashing. This is because this imagery is usually associated with a sustainable message and environmentally friendly products, giving consumers the feeling that the product or service is eco-friendly.
Another common greenwashing pitfall is when companies launch an eco-friendly aspect of their product range and then promote it endlessly, whilst the bulk of their services still remain far from environmentally friendly.
What are the potential consequences of Greenwashing?
It goes without saying that greenwashing comes with the risk of hazards and potential problems for a business. Recently, several investigations have been undertaken into greenwashing claims, including high-profile organisations such as Innocent, ASOS, H&M, and even the European Union. The UK’s regulator is the Competition and Markets authority (CMA), conducting these inquiries which can affect a business in several ways, including very hefty fines and bad publicity.
A business may also be forced to remove an advertisement entirely if it is found to be in breach of the CMA’s regulations, or in other cases the communications or labelling in question must be changed to ensure accuracy. Alternatively, organisations guilty of greenwashing can be required to publish statements of wrongdoing, publicising their shortcomings by sharing accurate information on sustainability credentials and pledging to change in-house systems, such as supply chains.
So, what can a business do to avoid greenwashing?
Certification schemes are available in several industries to establish credibility regarding a brand’s environmental initiatives, proving their sustainability claims.
Life cycle assessments
Companies can execute life cycle assessments by conducting an audit of the company’s in-house systems and supply chain to develop an understanding of their own sustainability credentials. This will prevent the marketing team from making mistakes or exaggerations within communications.
Above all, it is vital that businesses share transparent communications with audiences and the media regarding their environmental efforts, whether that be providing evidence of sustainability claims, or discussing the mistakes and improvements that will be made.
At LLPR we believe that honesty is integral and goes a long way to establishing consumer confidence and loyalty, and that’s something we constantly strive for in our ways of communicating.
*1 – Mckinsey Study – https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Industries/Consumer%20Packaged%20Goods/Our%20Insights/True%20Gen%20Generation%20Z%20and%20its%20implications%20for%20companies/Generation-Z-and-its-implication-for-companies.pdf
*2 -Nielson Study – https://ashtonmanufacturing.com.au/66-of-consumers-willing-to-pay-more-for-sustainable-goods-nielsen-report-reveals/ (Original report is now unavailable online)