The term ‘greenwashing’ was first coined in 1986 to describe outlandish and unsubstantiated claims and promises that corporations were spreading about themselves.
In brief, greenwashing describes disinformation efforts to convince audiences that an organisation is doing more to protect the environment than in reality, presenting an inaccurate image of environmental responsibility.
Now, 35 years later, greenwashing has accelerated into a widespread and prevalent issue plaguing virtually every industry. Many corporations are willing to bend the truth — and in some cases lie — in order to con consumers who increasingly question the ecological footprint and impact of companies they patronise.
Greenwashing sells moral values
With belief-driven buying at an all-time high, the ‘green angle’ offers a highly effective marketing opportunity. According to marketing firm Edelman, three out of five consumers’ purchase decisions are significantly impacted by an organisation’s social or political stance. This lines up with a recent ING report that found 61% of people agree they would be less likely to buy a product if the company was performing poorly on environmental practices.
Indeed, in the current climate, pitching moral values can help a company sell its products and services. Unfortunately, many businesses have found that making such assertions, regardless of their veracity, can propel many consumers over the finish line.
The old adage “doing good is good for business” certainly rings true. However, for many companies, looking like you’re doing good is, well, good enough.
Despite regulations and trade associations policing the issue, it’s still relatively easy to pump illusion over reality. “Many companies have adapted greenwashing tactics which carefully sidestep federal regulations regarding false advertising and work to provide a counter argument for the part of your brain telling you it isn’t worth the potential costs,” warns Giovanni Lopez-Quezada.
How, then, can a company prove reality-based green credentials without looking like just another greenwasher? What can marketers do to showcase their employers’ green initiatives and/or values without appearing to be just another perpetrator of greenwashing?
The public is getting better at spotting the type of wishy-washy language marketers use to make a company or product seem authentic. The answer in this case, is to be honest and transparent.
If you are positioning your company — or even simply a specific initiative or programme — as green, describe openly its full benefits. Moreover, don’t be afraid of exposing aspects of your operations that aren’t so green. In fact, doing so opens the door to discuss how you plan to improve in the future.
While that level of honesty and genuineness with customers traditionally has been considered a liability in business, consumers today appreciate and reward transparency and accountability, attributes that help build a stronger, more loyal bond with clients.
Be warned, however: This degree of transparency requires accuracy. In the era of social media, digital audiences are quick to ferret out misinformation and just one or two slip-ups — even if accidental or unintentional — can tarnish a brand’s credibility.
Ditto cherry-picking information in a way that could convey a false impression.
Instead, focus on making strong statements you can support. Any claims should be provable. And avoid using a self-aggrandising tone at all costs.
Impact is the enemy of greenwashing
Greenwashing 101: Companies too often are laser-focused on showing the world that they are indeed green-friendly. The marketing campaign becomes the most important element.
Rather, to communicate a message about sustainability aspects of your products or services, showcase real, substantial impact.
Look for data points — tangible facts — that showcase what has actually been achieved. Rather than publicising what you’re company has done or is doing to help the environment (and how amazing you are), focus instead on the programme, initiative and/or its positive impact.
Show (don’t tell) consumers why the issue is important to your company — and why they should care. Then use those data points to reinforce your assertions.
As Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), a non-profit whose mission is to “build a just and sustainable world,” writes in its Understanding and Preventing Greenwash report, “if the initiative is a small portion of the company’s efforts done for the sake of reputation…it’s greenwash.”
BSR suggests asking the following questions before embarking on a marketing campaign in order to ensure the impact comes first:
Is the topic of your message a significant environmental achievement?
As BSR warns, “if you reach the conclusion that the initiative is not making a significant change, don’t communicate it, or at least hone the scope of your message. Chances are people will see through inflated words and you will risk losing trust. Take a step back and develop an impactful initiative that is worthy of communication.”
Is the issue you are addressing material to your business?
If your impact doesn’t align with your core business, it may not necessarily matter to your stakeholders. Plus, if you are getting involved in environmental issues that don’t relate to your core business, it can come off as an attempt to distract from the primary environmental issues that are associated with your company.
Have you invested significant resources? Have you spent more money on the marketing than the activity?
This should be obvious. If you haven’t invested substantial resources in the green initiative or activity, it’s likely it will fail to achieve an environmental success worth sharing. In other words, focus on impact, not reputation.
Have you already achieved the results you are claiming?
At times, it’s better not to talk about what you are planning to do or what your green initiative or eco-friendly product/service will achieve. Wait for measurable, tangible results, or at least change your messaging so that it shines the spotlight on what has already been achieved.