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Greenwashing: Closing the gap between words and action

Blog authored by Jacob Robinson, junior account exec at Refresh.

Climate change, protecting the environment, and more sustainable ways of living, have all taken centre stage in society over the past decade. So, it’s hardly surprising that as the scientific understanding of how our behaviour affects the planet has increased, and awareness has become more widespread, consumer demands have also shifted.

The result of all this is that corporate social responsibility (CSR), and ‘corporate’ environmentalism, has now become a central aspect of the business strategy for many companies. However, although many companies now recognise the importance of being seen as sustainable or socially conscious, consumers are becoming increasingly sceptical about which companies to trust, and which are looking for commercial gain.

The problem is that not all businesses can or should shout about their environmental credentials; they must earn trust or risk being seen as a ‘greenwasher’.

After completing a dissertation on how environmentalism has affected private sector communications, thinking about how a business can communicate in a genuine way around societal issues is something that really interests me.

A business can have genuine concern for a certain problem, and can be doing something to solve it, but if its actions, investments, and messaging gets lost amongst the sea of claims - or are even deemed illegitimate - some business leaders may even think “why bother?”.

This is an outcome that would not only be detrimental to the brand, but ultimately the planet, as businesses and consumers alike must work together if we are serious about embracing a cleaner way of living and creating lasting change.

What does the consumer think?

Through my research I came to the conclusion that some businesses focus on including sustainability in their communications merely because consumers expect it. In fact, 77% of respondents surveyed believed that some or all businesses have an obligation to help solve societal problems such as climate change.

But with up to 91.4% of respondents believing claims of sustainability have increased due to the marketing value it can bring (making businesses look good), there is a distinct challenge for those in the private sector to communicate messages that are seen as authentic by the public. This isn’t to say that the entirety of the private sector is complicit in greenwashing, but that there are varying factors that determine the success of communications around sustainability and how the public perceive those messages.

The finding that 51% believe that at least some private companies care about the environment demonstrates that it is possible to effectively communicate about environmental issues. However, to be successful in developing a strategy on the topic, a business must ensure that its wider practice is reflective of its messaging.  

Should you talk about sustainability at all?

One of the companies I focused on in my research was Patagonia, and not just because I like their fleeces.

Patagonia is a frequently cited example of how a private sector organisation can be effective in incorporating environmentalism into its brand, and practices, whilst also remaining profitable - a central demand of any business’ stakeholders. Its unapologetic, bold approach to communications is idiosyncratic, mirroring its brand history. And, ultimately, consumers believe Patagonia’s communications are authentic because its actions mirror its words. This is crucial for gaining consumer trust in an increasingly sceptical society.

Admittedly, not every company has engrained sustainability into its strategy since day one. But every company can place a focus on what the business stands for, what it wants to stand for, what it is willing to do to help, and effectively communicate its strategy to consumers. However, social proof is crucial.  

In reality, purpose driven messaging is not suitable for every brand. In fact, many companies just starting out on their eco-journey would benefit from organically developing a reputation for good environmental practice, rather than advertising it. By implementing policy changes internally, and demonstrating a genuine commitment to sustainability, a business can grow an authentic reputation for being eco-friendly and avoid criticism from an increasingly sceptical population.  

If a company wants to place sustainability at the core of its communications strategy, then in order to appear authentic, it must also place environmental practice at the core of its wider business strategy. Publicising sustainability credentials without the evidence to back them up could cause serious damage to brand reputation.

A good place to start is by admitting which areas of the business can be improved and then implementing realistic science-based targets and pledging to stick to them. The brand should then regularly review progress, produce annual reports, and share factual information to demonstrate an authenticity which can often be lost in the noise.

Engaging with local community schemes or being part of larger global initiatives, such as ‘1% for the Planet’, are also ways in which a brand can demonstrate that it is not all talk.

Setting out what the brand will do to become more environmentally friendly, the route it will take to do this, and when it intends to meet its targets, is crucial. By doing this, the brand can demonstrate that it is serious about making a change and is setting the parameters for which it will be held accountable. Transparency is vital, and that includes acknowledging where the business could be doing better.

Authenticity is key

The way that the private sector communicates has dramatically altered due to the growing public support for change, particularly when it comes to how private companies interact with the planet, and their impact on society. This alteration in strategy is through the direct campaigns of NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organisations) such as Greenpeace, and government policy, but also because of a fundamental shift in consumer behaviour.  

Many consumers now place greater emphasis on the values of the businesses they buy from. Therefore, brands that wish to communicate effectively around issues such as sustainability must ensure that the wider business practice matches that of their messaging.

A strategy which is effective in creating a reputation for good environmental practice, is a strategy which places authenticity and transparency at its centre, and to achieve both, truth must be the basis of any message.

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