More than 50 years ago, a photo of a small blue marble in a sea of endless black helped catalyze the modern environmental movement as it put Earth’s fragility in sharp relief. In recent decades, countless activists, politicians and community leaders have worked to address the pressing problems of pollution, climate change and natural resource depletion. But healing and preserving our planet is not just the job of the individual, and the public has become increasingly aware of the role of corporations in climate change and disasters.
Thanks to consistent market, social and political pressure, many companies have taken steps to clean up their actions — not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s good for business. For example, consider that: more than a third of global consumers tend to pay a premium for sustainability. This behavior is part of a broader trend of consumers seeking political and social affirmation in the products they buy.
Business leaders have learned that if they can effectively message their environmental initiatives, they will win the hearts and minds of consumers for life. But if a company spends more time promoting itself as sustainable than reducing its environmental impact, it’s just greenwashing. And That will have the opposite effect.
The Volkswagen emissions testing scandal is arguably one of the most blatant examples of malicious greenwashing. However, greenwashing comes in all shapes and sizes. It might look like a fast-fashion brand misrepresenting its clothing recycling program, or a single-use plastic company using pristine nature in its ads. Some companies may participate in greenwashing without even realizing it, simply because of the lack of universal standards around ESG reporting.
Consider these three tips to ensure you accurately reflect your company’s sustainability efforts and avoid the pitfall of greenwashing:
1. Put in the work.
At its core, avoiding greenwashing is about doing work to create a greener global economy. Knowledge is power, so step one is to learn as much as you can about your supply chain and operations, including what your partners do and any laws or regulations that could affect your business.
There will not always be black and white answers. For example, to what extent are you responsible for the emissions of your parts suppliers? It’s hard to say, but it’s clear that the bigger your business, the greater the pressure to clean up your supply chain. So collect accurate emissions information from your supply chain and consider partners with lower emissions.
Then set goals and create internal policies to guide your efforts. This should include an understanding and application of acceptable accounting protocols and life cycle analysis in the context of your business. You also need to understand the costs, potential revenues and timeframe of your strategy.
Once you start executing, collect detailed data, measure your progress against the plan, and adjust as needed. If you do it right, you will learn a lot during this process – after all, you know your business like no other. Finally, report your progress to stakeholders such as customers, investors and partners. For an extra boost of credibility, you can seek third-party verification from a trusted organization.
2. Stop using vague language.
Language is the most powerful tool that humans possess. It is estimated that the average English-speaking adult knows about everything 20,000 to 35,000 words. Yet companies continue to rely on fuzzy language with no apparent meaning when discussing their sustainability efforts, and it damages their reputation.
Buzzwords like ‘green’, ‘natural’ and ‘environmentally friendly’ say little about the actual environmental impact of a product or service. Therefore, make sure that your claims are unambiguous. This can be as simple as recording more details. For example, instead of just saying that your product is made from organic cotton, you could include the specific percentage: “Our towels are made from 80% organic cotton.”
In addition, be careful of accidental greenwashing. Terms like “compostable,” “biodegradable,” and “plastic-free” may seem innocuous marketing jargon, but in fact have tightly regulated definitions. You don’t want to sue because your marketing team has used these terms in consumer messages. Ultimately, consumers don’t care if you “didn’t intend to mislead” them; they will just care that you did it.
3. Let go of the need for perfection.
Despite what you might expect, the public doesn’t expect your company to have all the answers, always achieve the best results, or achieve net-zero emissions against impossible expectations. However, they do expect you to be honest.
“Companies need to hold themselves accountable for their carbon footprint,” said Shashi Menon, co-founder and CEO of EcoEngineers, a consulting and auditing firm specializing in low-carbon fuels and decarbonization strategies. “They must communicate honestly what they are doing about it and admit what limitations they face. This level of honest communication and self-responsibility is lost when companies always try to be perfect.”
The good news is that an honest assessment of the risks and opportunities of the business environment often uncovers ways to achieve the seemingly impossible. You now have the chance to show how your company is working to improve its carbon footprint, and a human approach will increase consumer confidence in your products and your brand.
With consumers more concerned than ever about the environmental impact of the goods and services they buy, businesses are encouraged to adopt more sustainable practices and communicate these changes to stakeholders. But there’s a thin line between green marketing and greenwashing. If you want to win over demanding consumers, you have to walk that line carefully.