Greenwashing accusations are on the rise, and the reputational damage that comes with it is unmistakable. In this article, we share five important things you need to know to avoid accusations of greenwashing and the detrimental effects that can come from it.
“Greenwashing” describes the practice of making false or misleading claims about the environmental benefits of a product or service provided by a company.
The term has grown exponentially in recent years, coinciding with the increase of environmentally and socially conscious consumers, making it no surprise that marketing teams around the world are reflecting this in their campaigns.
But, simply saying positive things is not enough any more, consumers expect companies to follow through with their claims or risk accusations of unethical behaviour.
Accusations of greenwashing undermine consumer trust and the credibility of genuine sustainability efforts within an organisation and can have long lasting ramifications to a businesses bottom line, so what are the best practices to avoid accusations of greenwashing?
5. Be specific in sustainability claims
It’s all well and good broadly claiming your business is thinking seriously about sustainability in your strategy, but it can be met with scepticism by consumers who distrust unspecific and vague statements. This is especially true for industries that already have a reputation for being highly polluting or have previously been accused of greenwashing, such as fashion brands or oil and gas companies.
To overcome this, it’s important to make clear, specific, and verifiable claims about what’s going into these transitional efforts, for example specifying a deadline and an explanation of the method you’ll be using. Avoid vague or misleading statements, and this will give consumers a reason to believe in your commitment to sustainability and help to build trust in your brand.
4. Seek third-party verification
Your credibility is tied to your reputation and without concrete proof of what you’re claiming it can be difficult to convince customers of your commitment to sustainability, especially for smaller businesses.
One way to address this challenge is to collaborate with independent organisations that can verify your claims and provide an authentic endorsement that people can trust. There are various organisations that offer this type of support, depending on the specific sustainability claims made by your business.
If you’re looking to set credible plans for decarbonising, organisations such as the Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) can help. Not only will they work with you to demonstrate by how much and how quickly you need to reduce your greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, they will also verify your reduction plans as credible to external stakeholders.
For businesses that are already embedding sustainability into their operations, companies like rating’s provider EcoVadis, and accreditation provider B Lab, present ways to validate your companies efforts and provide a stamp of authenticity to customers.
Using independent verification also prevents well-intentioned businesses from overpromising on goals that may be unrealistic to achieve. It is better to set and achieve three sustainable goals, than it is to set nine goals but only achieve six.
3. Continuous improvement and building your reputation
The best way to establish trust and build your reputation is to demonstrate results. Show customers that you are actively working to reduce your business’s impact and that you are successful in doing so. Having a history of positive actions builds reliability and trust, which will strengthen your business’ credibility in the eyes of your customers, which in turn strengthens your future claims.
For example, Amazon continually shares stories of its progress to demonstrate its intentions and to bring consumers on side:
- Amazon’s new electric vans will be making deliveries in over 100 U.S. cities this holiday season
- Amazon announces 71 new renewable energy projects
- Amazon adopts green hydrogen to help decarbonise its operation
By frequently being vocal about its achievements, Amazon demonstrates its commitment to becoming more sustainable, which leads us onto our next point…
2. Consistency is key
Advertising the positive impact of a sustainable aspect of your business is great, but if you continue to rely on highly polluting processes elsewhere, such as through your logistics chain, then it’s clear that your business practices are misaligned with your message.
The case of HSBC is a perfect example of this inconsistency. Despite running a highly publicised campaign promoting its $1 trillion investment in environmentally friendly initiatives, such as tree planting and assisting clients in meeting climate goals, the bank was criticised by the UK’s advertising standards agency (ASA) for unethical behaviour. This came after it was revealed that the bank had continued to finance businesses and industries that contribute to the release of significant levels of greenhouse gases.
Consistency in your messaging and your businesses actions is key to building trust and credibility with consumers and demonstrating a genuine commitment to environmental or social sustainability.
1. Be transparent about sustainable efforts
Communicating the current environmental impact of a product or service, along with explaining the actions being taken to reduce it, is critical in persuading consumers that your intentions are honest.
Take the aviation industry as an example, which produces a substantial amount of carbon emissions from its aircraft usage. Dutch airliner KLM acknowledges that flying is not the most sustainable way to travel, admitting that they have a big responsibility to solve this problem. This is then followed by their goals and detailed plans on how they will make improvements in this area and to work towards a more sustainable business.
Open and honest communication about existing impacts, as well as active efforts to reduce them, builds consumer trust and confidence in a business’s responsible practices.
Companies should be proud to promote their sustainable accomplishments and communicate to consumers and investors why they merit their support. However, to avoid any accusations of misrepresentation and greenwashing, it is essential to maintain transparency, consistency, and trustworthiness throughout any marketing campaign. The positive outcomes of adhering to these principles speak for themselves.
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