The past few years have made increasingly clear the fact that great swathes of the public are actively looking to support businesses who to hold and support values that align with their own. In other words, for businesses to capture and retain customers, they need to be underpinned by a clear and proactive philosophy – one that prioritises the world beyond their own front doors.
In fact, a recent statistic suggests that more than 70% of consumers prefer to associate with businesses that align with their values.
It’s no surprise, then, that so many businesses have begun looking for ways to convey a sense of purpose and social responsibility through their product ranges, their marketing efforts, and their communications with customers.
One of the most prevalent values businesses are working to put forth is climate activism. From boosting sustainability – even to the point of carbon neutrality, which is a term we will look at below – to making high profile pledges, commitments and charitable donations, businesses across all key verticals are working to position themselves at the forefront of climate reform.
But it isn’t all positive. In September 2022, the term ‘Greenwashing’ was officially added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. While the word has been used since the mid-80s, the past few years have drawn it out of obscurity, as an increasing number of companies seek to use greenwashing practices to their own advantage.
What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing is the practice of working to put forth an image of eco-friendliness and concern for the environment, without making meaningful commitments and changes to reinforce those supposed values. There are many different ways greenwashing can manifest, from making false claims – for instance, the Volkswagen ‘diesel dupe’ – to using recyclable packaging as a ‘mask’ for non-recyclable (and environmentally unfriendly) products.
Companies are regularly being called out for greenwashing, from fossil fuel giants like Shell to banks, clothing brands, and food labels like Coca Cola. While greenwashing depends on consumers not doing their research, an increasing number of activists – and at-home sleuths – are catching companies in the act, and forcing them to backtrack on their claims.
This cycle is likely partly responsible for the increasing significance consumers are placing on brands’ ability to commit to certain values. The general public is growing cynical, and for good reasons…
What are some examples of greenwashing?
There are so many ways greenwashing can occur. Put simply, anytime a business is working to put forth an imagine of sustainability and environmental activism where data needs to be exaggerated, actions are overblown, or commitment is outweighed by opportunism, greenwashing is taking place.
In concrete terms, that means examples of greenwashing can be found in the language business choose to use, and the impression they put forth in photo and video campaigns.
- Environmentally friendly
This is vague on purpose. Environmental friendliness is not measurable, and it’s not something that can be proved or disproved.
- Carbon neutrality
Carbon neutrality is a woolly term. Companies that are known for releasing high levels of CO2, such as airlines, find it a useful term since, technicality, they may not be lying. Still, the reality is much more complicated than the terms suggest.
Carbon offsetting is not the same as reducing CO2 emissions. Companies can pledge to plant enough trees to ‘offset’ the CO2 they produce in any given year, but that doesn’t mean that their CO2 production is any less harmful for the environment. Planting trees is a great incentive for any person or business, but it’s not going to compensate for a lack of regard for the planet.
- ‘Conscious Choice’
This one was put forth by fashion giant H&M. Their decision to label certain garments with green labels reading ‘Conscious Choice’ has been met with significant criticism – and resulted in an ongoing lawsuit filed in the US.
Again, the term doesn’t mean anything concrete – but it puts forth a clear notion unsubstantiated by the company.
While this one doesn’t feel quite as loaded as other terms, it’s another term that misleads consumers. Many products are natural but, for them to reach our shelves, these products can leave behind big carbon footprints. Natural-looking packaging can appear recyclable, even if it’s not, and mask a product that is far from the ground it was plucked from.
- Less plastic
How much less plastic is there? If their product contains 10% less plastic than competitors, but competitors’ products comprise 100% plastic, then that 10% really doesn’t make much of a difference to the product’s carbon footprint.
- ‘We Care’
They say actions speak louder than words. If a company is centring its campaign on feeling, rather than action, consumers are justifiably suspicious.
There are countless more examples of the ways in which brands can greenwash their actions, and attempt to put forth a keen philosophy without supporting it with genuine action. It’s insidious, it’s prevalent, and it’s potentially profitable for companies willing to sacrifice ethics for profit.
How can companies avoid greenwashing?
Consumers are growing less forgiving of efforts to mislead or profit without action, and ever-growing competition between brands means that capturing consumer’s trust – and keeping it – is absolutely fundamental to a business’s ability to succeed for years to come.
In a way, avoiding greenwashing seems easy: don’t make choices that could be scrutinised or proven wrong down the line. In others, however, the prevalence of greenwashing means that brands who are genuinely looking to invest into their sustainability practices feel as though they are navigating an increasingly volatile landscape.
This needn’t be the case, however. Brands can avoid greenwashing without feeling as though they have to avoid the question of sustainability altogether.
- Prioritise action over communication
Brands who are genuinely making concerted efforts to reduce their carbon footprint and take meaningful steps toward supporting the environment don’t need to avoid talking about their progress. But, until they have made their intentions a reality, they need to avoid making it a part of any marketing campaigns – whether implicitly or explicitly.
This action needs to target the entire scope of the business, rather than one small part, and be informed by the broader picture. For instance, while it may once have been sufficient for food brands and restaurants to source their ingredients locally, this in itself is not enough. Choosing to only affiliate with local producers and farmers who have made commitments to regenerative agriculture.
If you’ve set yourself a goal of reduced emissions or 0% carbon emissions, then commit to that goal in action before you make it a central part of your marketing efforts. Invest in a renewable energy source for your business premises, like commercial solar PV, along with zero emissions vehicles (EV charging points can now be hooked up to your solar system, and government grants exist for those looking to boost EV charging infrastructure). Switch to suppliers who are also committed to realistic but serious goals for sustainability.
- Be real about your efforts as well as your results
One widely shared trait of companies that have been caught greenwashing their practices is an emphasis on the results. ‘We have done this’, is the message put across – and, as a result, ‘You can feel more ethical choosing us over our competitors’.
The reality is that most businesses, even those who are completely honest and realistic about their efforts, are far from ‘finished’. Practicing authenticity can be tough – especially with so many large corporations shouting about unrealistically strong results – but consumers appreciate it.
You can also let your customers feel as though their voice has been heard. Bring them in on the conversation, and prove your commitment by actioning community-led suggestions.
- Be precise
One thing that the vast majority of greenwashing examples have in common is their vagueness. Brands who do not prepared to lie outright will hide behind undefinable terms like, ‘We are helping to fix the planet’, or, ‘From natural sources’.
It’s entirely possible that some brands are accidentally using vague words and phrasing, but that is to their detriment. The more conclusive you can be in your communications and marketing campaigns, the clearer your company’s philosophy will be to existing (and prospective) customers.
It’s a shame that sustainability efforts have been twisted into another weapon companies can use against consumers. As shoppers, we are growing increasingly aware of how our behaviours impact the world at large, but we are all also aware that, even if we curtail our reliance on fossil fuels and harmful materials like plastic, the private sector will continue to bear the greatest responsibility for the planet.
Businesses have a responsibility to make that necessary action on behalf of their customers, and it is important no one underestimates the power of real action over hollow words and vague sentiments designed to appeal to a very real, and very palpable, concern for the planet’s future.
It’s possible to put yourself on the right side of history, but we all need to be aware of what greenwashing is, and how we can all avoid it, and leave it to the companies that won’t survive the next few years.