As businesses strive to market themselves to best appeal to today’s sustainability-conscious consumers, it is perhaps inevitable that claims will be made that don’t necessarily give the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Dr Rosina Watson, associate professor of sustainability, and Dr Tamira King, senior lecturer in strategic marketing, at Cranfield University, discuss how marketers can avoid falling victim to ‘greenwashing’.
Every business wants to be sustainable.
Ok, that’s perhaps sadly not exactly true, but every business that wants to continue to serve the mass market into the near future will need to become sustainable, giving as much regard to people and planet as it does to profit. Business survival depends on it.
You don’t have to look far to see companies falling over themselves to highlight their supposed sustainability credentials. Tweaks to packaging to add terms like ‘eco-friendly’, ‘biodegradable’, ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘net zero’ (in green text, of course!), or single line affirmations about emissions reduced or trees saved, are easy to make and suggest to time-poor consumers that this is a product they can purchase knowing it won’t hurt the planet.
But how much substance is there in these claims?
We’re not suggesting large numbers of businesses are deliberately trying to pull the wool over the eyes of an unsuspecting public. What we are suggesting is that a lot of businesses are missing the point of the drive for greater sustainability and that, at its worst, this equates to greenwashing, which damages consumer confidence, seriously harming the efforts of those genuinely trying to do their bit for people and planet.
Sustainability: a journey, not a destination
Sustainability is a continuum. It isn’t a destination you arrive at one day; it is always doing better by the world in which we live.
Any profit-making business that began its life before ‘sustainability’ belatedly became a higher priority for businesses is not going to pivot overnight from operations based around consumption of finite resources and selling products that aren’t sustainable, to the most environmentally and socially conscious organisation there is.
The likes of Unilever, Marks and Spencer and IKEA have been on the road for over a decade, having anticipated the shift that would be required in their operations and dedicated significant resource to making the necessary changes. But they would still claim to be on a journey.
What is greenwashing?
So-called ‘greenwashing’ happens when businesses effectively try to press fast-forward on their sustainability journey. Companies want their customers to see their progress on sustainability, so they look for any areas of positive environmental behaviour they can highlight.
Greenwashing is when those customer messages – intentionally or unintentionally – are misleading or not material to the real sustainability issues front and centre for that business.
You can’t label a bottle 100% recyclable, with an asterisk and footnote saying the cap or protective film can’t be recycled or be a fashion retailer that celebrates removing sequins and glitter but does nothing to tackle the billions of items of its end-of-life clothing going to landfill. You’re doing a good thing but aren’t tackling the biggest issues caused by your operations.
There’s nothing wrong with taking small steps. The issue is when those small steps become a marketing tactic that isn’t contextualised in the bigger picture of all the negative impacts you have yet to tackle as a business.
With the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and other relevant bodies increasingly taking action against companies that mislead customers with inaccurate or incomplete sustainability claims, it has never been more important for marketers to understand their business’s sustainability journey.
Here are our four steps to avoiding greenwashing:
1) Know your material impacts
On our sustainability courses, including our Sustainability MSc, we talk about the importance of knowing your material impacts.
Looking across your supply chain and taking into account the product lifecycle from raw materials to impact in use and disposal at end of life, where are your biggest sustainability issues, and where are the biggest opportunities for you to make a positive impact? Those are the problems and opportunities you should be tackling.
If you’re making sustainability claims in your marketing that aren’t about your progress in those areas, you need to take care.
When it comes to sustainability, it is ok to be trying. You can admit you don’t have all the answers, and that your business isn’t yet where it wants to be. You can talk about positive steps, but in the context of what you’re doing to tackle your biggest impacts.
Have a plan and be transparent about what you’re tackling here and now, what is to come, and how you want customers to come with you on the journey.
2) Seek clarity on unfamiliar terms
Part of the difficulty marketers face is that ‘sustainability’ and the terms associated with it are ill-defined, intangible and not widely understood. Businesses may also struggle to understand how to use some of the techniques available to evaluate different areas of sustainability.
Consumers want to purchase more environmentally friendly products. When they see words like ‘carbon neutral’ or ‘sustainable’ on packaging, they want to buy into those terms as definitions and trust the brand to take care of the details.
However, there is a lack of clarity that urgently needs to be addressed.
The Government, together with the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), launched its Green Claims Code to try to support businesses in marketing sustainability claims. Meanwhile, ASA and the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) also have their own guidance.
Find out more: Consult the Green Claims Code checklist.
But there is more work to do. ASA is petitioning the Government to issue clarification on what is meant by terms like ‘greenwashing’ and ‘net zero’. So, watch this space…
3) Test and learn
It’s ok to test out new ideas on a small scale to see if they work, providing you have a genuine intention to scale up the trial if successful. Businesses should be clear on the learning they will gain and how they will use it to further their overall sustainability journey.
Consider the example of Aldi, currently testing out its first ‘eco-concept’ store in Leamington Spa.
4) Consider your toolkit
Students on our sustainability and marketing programmes are encouraged to consult Professor Hugh Wilson’s ‘sustainable marketing mix’, which highlights the broad range of tools at a marketer’s disposal to influence customer behaviour and push a more sustainable product or action. Only one of the six ‘levers’ involves making a direct sustainability appeal.
There are other ways to promote sustainability in your organisation without talking about it in your marketing. You can encourage customers to buy more sustainable products by making those products more visible in your stores and online, introducing price incentives, and promoting the wider benefits they bring.
Direct sustainability appeals may be best avoided unless your business is coming from a position of having made real progress in tackling its biggest material impacts.
Becoming a sustainable business requires doing the right thing, but not necessarily talking about it. Yet every step in the right direction should be celebrated.
Interested in learning more about Sustainability? Join us online to build an understanding of the knowledge, skills and personal competencies the Sustainability MSc and Sustainability Business Specialist Apprenticeship programme will deliver, and how it can enable you to improve your organisations’ sustainability performance.