How to communicate sustainability and avoid greenwashing

Research shows that 66% of consumers would spend more on a product that comes from a sustainable brand, so it’s no surprise that brands are making it a priority to communicate their sustainability initiatives. However, there’s a fine line between sustainability and greenwashing – read on for just what this means and how brands can steer clear of it.

How to communicate sustainability and avoid greenwashing

What is greenwashing?

According to the Oxford English dictionary, greenwashing can be defined as:

“The creation or propagation of an unfounded or misleading environmentalist image.”

The term was originally coined as far back as 1986, however it has become widely used in more recent years as consumer interest in environmental issues has grown. This has led to ethical businesses becoming increasingly popular amongst consumers, with brands using their eco credentials to create differentiation in the market. In turn more and more businesses want to use this competitive advantage for themselves and shout about their own environmental credentials. On the surface there is nothing wrong with this.

Where it starts to go wrong is when brands use false or vague information to present an eco image that is inaccurate in order to mislead customers. This is greenwashing and consumers are becoming increasingly jaded with unfounded sustainability claims from businesses, making it tricky for them to identify genuinely sustainable businesses.

Avoiding greenwashing

A YouGov poll found that two thirds of people are sceptical of environmental claims made by companies.

With that being said however, there is still a strong business case for companies being environmentally conscious. Research shows that 66% of consumers would spend more on a product that comes from a sustainable brand (Nielson’s Global Corporate Sustainability Report). This is why businesses are so keen to shout about their eco credentials – it really does drive profitability.

Unfortunately, this has led to a deluge of greenwashing from brands. This ranges from the far-reaching, mass acts of greenwashing as seen by the likes of the Volkswagen emissions scandal, or BP focusing their marketing on their low-carbon energy products, despite more than 96% of their annual spend being on oil and gas, to McDonald’s launching paper straws in 2019 that cannot actually be recycled (whilst the outgoing plastic ones could).

But sometimes, greenwashing can occur by ignorance too, with businesses not being aware of the full extent of the environmental impact of their business and supply chain. For example, Ikea sources its wood from the Forest Stewardship Council, who are supposed to supply sustainably harvested wood, but following a whistle-blower investigation, the wood supplied was found to be illegally sourced. This highlights the importance of businesses truly knowing all aspects of their sustainability footprint.

How to avoid greenwashing

So how can you avoid greenwashing?

Be honest – it should go without saying, but don’t make things up or hide things. All environmental claims must be substantiated and be careful of using fluffy terms such as “green” or “sustainably produced” without having actual evidence to support this.

Avoid vague aims – be specific and measurable on your corporate environmental goals and how you are planning on getting there. Customers will value your honesty and transparency, so say if you are just starting out and still have a long way to go yet.

Don’t use scientific terms – whilst you don’t want to be vague, you also don’t want to use terms that only a scientist could understand or check. This will be meaningless to your customers and could be seen as another way to be deceitful.

Fully understand your supply chain and all aspects of your business’s operations – your efforts could be severely undermined by the practices of one of your suppliers. Ensure all parts of your supply chain are aligned with your environmental goals.

Demonstrating the seriousness of greenwashing, at the start of this year the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced it would verify environmental and sustainability claims made by businesses to ensure their communication was following UK consumer protection law. If found to be misleading (greenwashing), the CMA can now take enforcement action.

If you’d like to discuss the best way to effectively communicate your environmental credentials with an expert, get in touch with our highly experienced team here. You may also like to listen to Season 6, episode 4 of our Revitalise & Grow podcast, where we discuss greenwashing in more detail and delve in to some of the examples above.