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Five ways to communicate your business sustainability credentials without ‘greenwashing’

by Angela Barter,  Sustainability Communication Strategist

Old Mutual Masterclass series1

 

For rapidly growing numbers of increasingly well-informed and environmentally-conscious consumers, the environment – and environmental accountability – are important concerns. These consumers will only support transparent, authentic and honest companies that are environmentally accountable and do not harm – or profit at the expense of – the environment or people.

Extremely mindful of environmentally related issues and with genuine concern for the environment, these environmentally-conscious consumers intentionally use their purchase power as a means to drive change. They put their money and brand loyalty only behind companies that take ownership and responsibility for their environmental and social impact, and have long-term sustainability goals and environmentally-responsible practices.

Impact on business

The business landscape is being transformed by consumers’ increasing awareness of their individual impact on the environment, and their expectation of a better, healthier and more sustainable future. To capture the attention and loyalty of this growing ‘green consumer’ market, companies must adopt sustainable business practices along with environmental and social initiatives; and communicate their ‘sustainability credentials’ and environmental responsibility to stakeholders.

Communicating a company’s sustainability credentials can unlock a range of benefits, including:

  • differentiating products in the ‘green economy’
  • providing competitive advantage
  • enhancing brand value and reputation
  • portraying good environmental stewardship
  • capturing the attention of the growing ‘green consumer’ market
  • increasing investor confidence
  • building consumer trust and loyalty
  • creating long term stakeholder value

Explosion of ‘green’ claims:

With increasing numbers of companies wanting to promote their sustainability credentials, environmental practices or environmental claims to capture the attention of this target market, there has been an explosion of environmental or ‘green’ claims.

Environmental claims such as ‘biodegradable’, ‘compostable’, ‘organic’, ‘recyclable’, ‘renewable’, ‘zero emissions’ and many others, are increasingly common across diverse sectors, including energy, vehicles, household products, textiles, building supplies, food and drinks. These ‘green’ claims are made through wording, imagery, symbols and logos on packaging, labels and advertisements.

Green or greenwashed?

‘Greenwashing’ or ‘greenwash’, as defined by Greenpeace1, refers to “the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service”.

False, deceptive, exaggerated and inaccurate social and environmental claims aimed at misleading consumers to believe that the company or product is ‘environmentally sound’ when it is not, is unethical. However, ‘greenwashing’ can also be the result of a lack of understanding, ignorance or simply over-enthusiasm. Either way, poor or inappropriate communication can result in an industry leader being accused of ‘greenwashing’, even though their sustainability record might be better than their competitors’.

Seven ways to spot ‘greenwashing’

  • Not telling the truth
  • No proof
  • Irrelevant claims
  • Vague or ambiguous environmental claims
  • Hidden trade-offs
  • ‘Better than’ claims
  • Use of suggestive green imagery and self-declared environmental logos

Source: TerraChoice (acquired by UL) – 7 Sins of Greenwashing2

Danger of ‘greenwashing’

‘Greenwashing’ is a dangerous gamble with a company’s reputation. The public’s insight and knowledge should not be underestimated – people are increasingly well-informed and can exert great pressure on companies if their concerns are not addressed or their trust is violated.

Companies that do not walk their ‘green talk’, or intentionally ‘green sheen’ their environmental communications, run the risk of irreparable brand and reputational damage, negative publicity and loss of trust and confidence among consumers and stakeholders.

In addition, companies face recourse if approached by the South African Advertising Regulatory Board3(ARB) which warns against making general environmental claims such as “environmentally friendly” and “green”.

Five ways to communicate your business sustainability credentials without ‘greenwashing’

  1. Be factual, truthful and transparent. Don’t imply environmental benefits or make irrelevant environmental claims.
  2. Base each environmental claim on a specific and genuine benefit/advantage to the environment that can be substantiated scientifically or by reasonable rationale.
  3. Use clear and understandable language, avoiding general, vague environmental terms such as ‘environmentally friendly’, ‘eco’, ‘green’ or ‘natural’.
  4. Refrain from misleading imagery that portrays a ‘feeling of nature’; implies a sweeping environmental benefit; or suggests endorsement by a third party, such as ‘endorsed by Mother Nature’.
  5. Ensure supporting certification, documentation or information is available to consumers.

With eco-conscious consumers demanding authenticity and accuracy in companies’ marketing and environmental claims, and given the dire consequences if ‘greenwash’ claims are exposed, companies should avoid ‘greenwashing’ at all costs. Without ‘greenwashing’, a company can provide consumers with accurate, transparent and authentic environmental information, enabling them to make informed decisions to support companies that are truly making a difference to reduce their environmental impact.

References and links

1https://jcsr.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s40991-019-0044-9

2https://www.ul.com/insights/sins-greenwashing

3http://arb.org.za/codes.html

4https://www.prisa.co.za/

5https://www.scribd.com/document/427189958/Handbook-of-Public-Relations-10E-by-Chris-Skinner

 

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