Ethically minded companies are aware that being sustainable isn’t just all about environmental protection, it’s about changing perceptions of what a business can be in the 21st century. Compassionate, socially engaged companies are what consumers are demanding, companies that recognise the significant role they have to play in tackling the enormous challenges that we face as a species.
The green movement grows stronger every day. The days of companies retreating into the shell of their own profits are numbered, with consumers increasingly conscious of the social and environmental cost of the products they use.
There is a villain in this tale though, and it’s called greenwashing. This refers to the all-too-common practice of businesses that care jack shit about anything beyond their own self-interest manipulating customers into believing that their products and business practices are far more environmentally friendly than they actually are.
We all live busy lives and so we can’t be expected to go and strenuously research every company to whom we hand over our money to find out if they tick all the right boxes.
Companies guilty of greenwashing know this, in fact they count on it. Most of us are all too satisfied when we see a little green eco-sticker alongside our favourite coffee brand, giving the excuse for us to walk away happily sipping on a little cup of overpriced, guilt-free virtue.
Now, granted, greenwashing isn’t quite as big a problem as it was around the turn of the decade when the green movement really began to infiltrate the mainstream, but is still an issue nonetheless. The main offenders tend to be long-established big businesses, with huge marketing budgets and a high level of influence over consumer habits. Let me give you a couple of examples.
Remember the short-lived green-labelled Coca Cola Life? Me too, just about. If not, this insightful deconstruction should refresh your memory.
Luckily, in that instance the sweet smell of bullshit was slightly stronger than the scent of stevia extract, and customers quickly recognised that this was little more than a blatant marketing gimmick (in the UK at least – I’ve just found out it’s still going in some international markets – who knew?).
Even OIL companies, in fact, especially oil companies have and continue to stoop to greenwashing tactics. Check out this ad from BP:
The really shocking thing is that this ad was released in the same year as the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Seriously, I don’t know whether to cry or commend them for their audacity.
Shell, meanwhile, are such repeat offenders that they’re now inspiring parody ads on Youtube.
As comically shameless as these examples are, these obfuscating tactics are damaging for the green industry in a number of ways. People naturally tend to gravitate towards what is familiar, particularly when it comes to well-established brands. This means that when big companies attempt to infiltrate the green market through greenwashing they will inevitably siphon off sales and obstruct the growth of the smaller, less-established companies who are actually sincere in their commitment to sustainability.
What’s worse, greenwashing has a negative impact upon the integrity of the green movement overall. Many people unfortunately can’t see the wood for the trees when it comes to greenwashing, and come to assume that the entire industry is built upon deception. This leads to an attitude of toxic cynicism when it comes to sustainable and eco-friendly products.
So what can we do to combat greenwashing and help consumers to recognise when they are being misled?
Make it Easy for Customers to Find the Information They Need
As I said earlier, most people don’t have the time to cast a critical eye over every company that slaps the word sustainable onto their marketing, meaning many unsubstantiated claims in terms of environmental protection pass unnoticed.
This is where digital marketing may have a big role to play. Many businesses these days now run company blogs through their websites, and these serve as a fantastic outlet for customers to get to know a business or brand more closely.
Keeping a regularly updated blog documenting your sustainability practices is an ideal way to display the integrity of your environmental credentials to customers.
Sustainability, after all, is not a one-time thing. By its nature it is an ongoing process, and so when a company advertises itself as sustainable just once in a single marketing campaign, but without mentioning it elsewhere else on their website, this should ring the greenwashing alarm bells.
The content of these articles should be detailed, but accessible, something brief that people can read through in 5 minutes as it pops up in their twitter feed during a coffee break. These articles can cover everything from using renewable energy sources to switching to local suppliers for materials.
Be Transparent, Modest and Direct
Transparency is something I babble on about quite a lot but that’s because I really can’t stress the point enough. By being open and honest about how your business operates you prove that you have nothing to hide, that you value your customers and have no need to try and deceive them.
Modesty alongside transparency goes a long way. Companies guilty of greenwashing like to be obnoxiously loud about their sustainability claims, like a young child pining for praise and attention. Sustainability, though, should be considered an obligation to be fulfilled rather than a choice to be rewarded. So be modest and recognise that there is always more to be done.
Also, avoid making vague claims or using environmental buzzwords in your content. Don’t just simply say ‘We are proud of our commitment to environmental sustainability’, be direct and say precisely what you have done and how this has been achieved. Provide details and, wherever possible, back up your claims with data.
Don’t Just Rely on Accreditations
Many third-party certifications are now available that can help to substantiate a company’s environmental claims. Though useful to have, these certificates are often industry-specific and require only basic criteria to be met in order to be awarded, meaning they rarely tell the whole story.
Customers and companies who are truly environmentally conscious understand that sustainability is a top to bottom process, encompassing almost every aspect of day-to-day operations, and not just in terms of the production of products.
Accreditations like these should be used in conjunction with your marketing, something that helps to highlight the validity of your environmental commitments, but not as an end in itself.
Make Transparency the Norm
Creating a general culture of transparency, both within and beyond the green movement, would sound the death knell for greenwashing because consumers would come to expect a minimum level of openness in how a business presents itself to the public.
Ethically minded companies who value people and the planet as much as their profits should have nothing to hide, in stark contrast to the profit-hungry greenwashers whose motivations go little further beyond the appeasement of shareholders. Challenge such companies to fully open their doors and chances are you’d be met with deafening silence.
By normalising some of these principles across the green industry we can demonstrate to consumers the kinds of questions they need to be asking of companies when deciding to make a purchase – questions that greenwashers will inevitably be unable to answer.
We may never be able to fully eradicate greenwashing, but we can take measures to at least help to ensure that most attempts to manipulate the public will fall flat, and hopefully leave some firms red-faced for good measure, no matter how dastardly sophisticated their marketing may be.