How Brands Can Avoid Greenwashing and Tell Their Sustainability Stories

Walking the line between greenwashing and conspicuous silence can be tricky for brands, but there are a few simple insights to help them get sustainability messaging right, writes Dave Caygill, founder of the Sustainable Business Guide and executive director of future strategy at Iris.

22 April 2022 saw the 52nd Earth Day since the movement started. Oh, how things have evolved since those heady days of the ‘70s when the climate emergency wasn’t even in the public consciousness. In fact, it was launched with founder Denis Hayes flying around the US to make speeches across a raft of cities. 

This year Denis lambasted brands for the current level of greenwashing, but perhaps Earth Day has become a victim of its own success.  

The emails sent out by brands were almost indistinguishable from each other, with many – including Lowplex Books and Amazon Prime – declaring that Every Day is Earth Day. But doesn’t this sentiment miss the point? It’s clear that the brand’s virtuous claims exhibited through headline numbers were being cherry-picked and provided without context, with the likes of Amazon EU boasting that it has delivered 100 million packages using zero-emission in 2021, whilst remaining silent about the fact that this is a tiny percentage of the  9.3 billion parcels it delivered in 2018

But whilst many brands seem to ignore the warnings and continue to greenwash in this way, we are seeing much more vocal and active pushback from society. From a Twitter bot that checks all climate pledges to the sustainability review platform calling out brands that make a “song and dance” about their green credentials, the time of saying without doing is over. 

To get it right, however, is no easy task. After all, there are a number of regulations across the UK and the EU to protect consumers and scruitinse campaigns, but no simple unified labelling or communication standard to communicate with consumers. This makes it harder for brands to not only avoid overclaiming and greenwashing but also to find an authentic and consistent voice that tells their sustainability story. 

These opposing expectations mean that many brands fall into the traps, despite good intentions, and end up greenwashing in their communications. With pressure to differentiate in a competitive market, it leads brands down a treacherous path towards selling claims that do not align with the business performance in sustainability, simply to ensure their hat is in the ring. In 2021 the CMA (UK) found that 40% of claims made by brands could be misleading and open to upheld complaints under the new Green Claims Code.

But it also leads to a ‘Green Hush’ where brands are too scared to talk about their sustainability achievements out of fear of a media storm, despite those achievements being worth celebrating. IKEA is a great example – it has spent the last couple of decades working behind the scenes on its approach to circularity and sustainability and yet we’re only now just starting to hear about it. 

So, how can brands ensure they find a balance in their story between their communications needs and their authentic contribution?

Put your audience first

Understand your audience and meet them on their level – this might mean adjusting technical language and finding a way to make it accessible. A number of companies in the UK, including Sainsbury’s, Abel & Cole and Costa are due to trial traffic light style eco-labelling to make it easier for consumers to make informed decisions. 

Bring in diverse voices and opinions

Sometimes you aren’t the expert in a particular area and it can be a huge benefit to step back and listen. This will allow you to make more informed decisions. 

Get specific

Make environmental information easy to understand. It can feel very daunting for consumers who doubt if brands are being transparent. In 2020, Allbirds became the first fashion brand to adopt Carbon Footprint labelling for all its products. 

Take a system thinking approach

Environmental and social factors are linked, and this needs to be acknowledged. Timberland’s Earthkeepers sustainable line uses community cotton, grown in Haiti through a responsible business model that has a positive impact on the communities it works with. 

Think global, act local

Climate change is a global problem, felt on a local level. You can have a big impact by working with communities that are impacted by your business. 

Be consistent across touchpoints

Make sure that your focus on sustainability is consistent across all touchpoints. I.e. don’t create a sustainable product and not consider the packaging, labels, shipping methods etc. 

Be open

Avoid omitting information and take ownership of any challenges, while identifying the areas where you have made progress. 

Invest in the future

Sometimes, it’s beneficial to look at other ways to support your eco-credentials. This might involve investing in community projects or other organisations that support your message. In 2020, Ecover launched the ‘Fertilise the Future’ fund, pledging £500K to fund sustainable start-ups and eco-pioneers.

Reframe your product around better behaviours

You need to be seen to facilitate progress, even if this feels counterproductive to business objectives. Patagonia’s ‘Don’t Buy this Jacket’ campaign is a great example of this, where it encouraged customers to consider the environment before making a purchase. 

Make it personal through participation

People care about what affects them directly and they need to care in order to engage with a brand. Ben & Jerry’s is great at involving its customers in climate issues through events and activities. It makes consumers feel like they are a part of the solution. 

So, whilst Earth Day is important for grabbing attention towards an important problem, brands and agencies need to ensure that they ignore the temptation to use it as a vehicle for building brand love without authenticity running through the businesses. There is fear and excitement across industries right now but the key to getting it right comes down to your story – it’s important to make it a true one and worth the read.

This article first appeared in Little Black Book

Dave Caygill
Dave Caygill
David is the owner of Sustainable Business Guide and Founder of Terra Further, a consultancy which designs and deliver products and services that work for people, planet and profit. Having spent a decade and half working in brand, product and marketing innovation he developed a keen sense of how to create and communicate compelling propositions. His time at Cambridge Institute for Sustainable Leadership has given me a solid understanding of the science and theory behind sustainability. He combined it with decades working with some of the biggest brands in the world including Starbucks, Samsung, VW, Mini, Yum! foods and Hertz. He's now I’m on a mission to protect and regenerate nature and biodiversity by helping unlock the $200b / year pledged at Cop15 and putting it to work in the projects that can protect 30% of nature by 2030. David started the Sustainable Business Guide to support SME businesses who are typically unable to access specialist help in sustainability industry yet are some of the organisations most in need of help transitioning to a low carbon and sustainable business model.

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