Environmentally friendly. Carbon neutral. Better for the planet. For years, brands used these descriptors loosely to market their products to the eco-conscious – those seeking to lessen their impact on the environment through more sustainable consumption choices.
From laundry detergents to airlines, and clothing to banking services – you don't have to look hard to see additions to packaging of terms like "eco-conscious" or declarations in ads about emissions averted or trees planted.
Many of these claims may have elements of truth – and marketers may not have intended to mislead – but the EU found, in 2020, that 53% of environmental product claims were "vague, misleading or unfounded" and 40% had no supporting evidence.
Fast-forward to today and much has changed. Building on increased scrutiny from consumer rights groups and advertising watchdogs, misleading eco-claims are now the target of a new, EU-wide law, the Green Claims Directive, designed to stop unsubstantiated claims altogether and protect consumers from greenwashing.
Brands that leave consumers with an untrue impression of how a company's products or services are good for the environment risk falling foul of these new rules and seeing their reputations tarnished. The UK Advertising Standards Authority's banning of Etihad Airways' ads for breaching its guidance on green claims by suggesting the airline offered a "sustainable" way to fly is just the latest enforcement action from regulators.
So where does that leave brand owners and marketers today?
Resist the temptation to shy away
It's understandable to be reluctant to shout about your company's work to create a circular economy or decarbonise your operations when detractors are likely waiting on the sidelines to call you out for not going far enough, fast enough or for not addressing an area where your negative impact is greater. Or to wonder whether the incremental progress you are making is worth promoting or risks underwhelming stakeholders.
But going radio silent or undercommunicating your sustainability activity – "greenhushing" – undermines the headway your company may be making. And, importantly, that approach takes a near-sighted view by keeping customers, consumers, employees, supply chain partners, NGOs and other stakeholders in the dark on your progress. Instead, upskill and engage with the new rules so you have the knowledge to inform effective sustainability strategies and how they should be communicated.
Know your material impacts
To date, it has largely been the remit of product, technical, sustainability and/or R&D teams to understand the full end-to-end impacts of products, for example, where ingredients and materials are sourced from, impacts from production and how products are packaged and shipped.
With companies now required to provide scientific evidence and technical detail to substantiate their "green" claims – and to disclose any impacts across the full product life cycle, as well as to communicate this information to consumers – it's in marketers' interests to start with the data and evidence and build upwards towards an evidenced claim rather than asserting a claim and working backwards to substantiate it.
Remain close to key functions of the business. You can't describe what you can't understand, and delivering accurate, proven claims depends on collaboration.
Contextualise incremental steps rather than celebrating them as wins
When it comes to sustainability, there's nothing wrong with taking small actions as part of a longer journey. It's alright to be trying. You can admit you don't have all the answers and that your business isn't where it wants to be yet. Problems arise when those incremental steps become central to a marketing campaign that doesn't recognise or contextualise all the biggest, negative environmental effects caused, that you have yet to address.
Resist stretching the truth. Instead use those small steps as moments to demonstrate actual progress and increase your sustainability credentials over time. You can talk about positive steps, but importantly, in the context of the actions you're taking to tackle your biggest areas of harm.
Stay true to integrity and purpose
It's essential for marketers to be able to talk confidently about sustainability progress. But this confidence will come only if brands approach everything they do with integrity – rather than misusing Purpose as a strapline. Until claims about positive impact are connected to honest disclosures of negative impact, the risk of greenwashing will be ever-present.
Work with the business to tackle root causes of harm, so you have credible progress and proof points to communicate, aligned with your biggest areas of harm. If you're making sustainability claims in marketing that aren't about your progress in those areas, and in doing so, diverting attention away, you need to take care. Until you tackle your root causes, you're just talking the talk.
Avoiding greenwashing doesn't need to be difficult, as long as a company stays true to the facts and focuses on genuinely creating positive impact.
Anisha Vikram Shah is senior consulting director at Blurred