A new report from Dentsu aims to help companies avoid slipping up when touting their actions around SDGs (sustainable development goals). The SDGs are a list of 17 targets to improve the world, outlined by the United Nations in 2015, that include eradicating poverty and hunger, and making sanitation and quality education available to all.
Dentsu notes in its report that “opportunities for the SDGs to be used in public relations are increasing in companies in Japan and overseas”. For certain companies however the temptation to overstate their ‘sustainable’ credentials can be too much to resist—something commonly known as a ‘greenwash’. In its report, Dentsu updates the term, which originated in the 1980s, to an ‘SDGs wash’.
A spokesperson for Dentsu’s SDGs project explained the distinction between the two. she said where ‘greenwashing’ “refers to a company’s deception from an environmental point of view”, an ‘SDGs wash’ goes further, encompassing human rights and social issues. He noted that while there are 17 specific SDGs goals, the UN has outlined 169 broader targets, expanding the scope for ‘washing’.
Dentsu defines a ‘wash’ as positioning a company as friendly to a cause when it is untrue; exaggerating its friendliness; and releasing only positive information while ignoring “inconvenient facts”. It notes that such an approach stands to damage public trust and weaken the appeal of the company for investors.
While that much might seem obvious, Dentsu’s guidelines are designed to reinforce awareness among advertisers to avoid a possible lapse. It points out that companies that claim to follow SDGs are easy targets for criticism.
“It is dangerous for companies to do advertising that only presents the positive aspects of measures related to the goals under the SDGs,” Dentsu’s guide states. “If the company does not take into consideration the negative aspects of the business of the company overall on society, rather than only the implemented measures, and disclose those negative aspects as well, there is a risk that it will be judged as engaging in a ‘wash’.”
Dentsu advises advertisers and PR professionals that before communicating their SDGs measures, they should assess whether those measures are on the right scale; whether it’s possible to assess their outcomes easily; whether they are sustainable and not sporadic; and whether they are uniquely placed to implement them.
To avoid an ‘SDGs wash’, in simple terms, Dentsu urges companies not to lie. Here is a summary of its advice:
- Avoid expressions which have no basis and for which the information source is unknown
- Avoid expressions which exaggerate beyond the facts (including implying the company is voluntarily doing something when it is in fact just following the law)
- Avoid vague expressions
- Avoid using visuals that don’t relate directly to the facts (suggesting that images can mislead as much as words can)
Taking into account human rights, it also advises companies to:
- be aware that words can have different meanings in different cultures
- guard against stereotypical or prejudicial portrayals in advertising
- be aware that people have different value systems based on culture and history
Asked why such a guide was necessary—why companies are not better at communicating about their activities truthfully—Dentsu’s spokesperson put it down to believing “that they cannot favourably compete with their competitors in the market without communicating that they are superior or equal to other companies”.
“Especially when the technical/functional differentiation is not clearly apparent, they might tend to use data favourable to them, exaggerate some expressions, or promote their advantages in comparison with competitors to consumers,” she said.
The most common mistake is failing to communicate the negative impact behind seemingly positive activities, she said. “It seems they lack both measures and disclosure of SDGs goals that are disadvantageous to them. If you focus only on the goals that are advantageous to your company, you may lose sight of your company as a whole…and you will be called out by stakeholders.”
The companies that strike the right balance stand to “establish reliability and favourability for both themselves and their brands”, she concluded.