With eight out of every ten consumers basing their purchasing decisions on sustainability, it’s all too easy for companies to engage in unintentional greenwashing…
…or, in the case of some large corporations, intentional greenwashing.
So that your business doesn’t find itself embroiled in any controversy, here we:
- define what greenwashing is,
- detail the most commonly used greenwashing tactics,
- and explain how your business can avoid greenwashing altogether.
What Is Greenwashing?
First coined by the environmentalist Jay Westerveld in ‘86, greenwashing, also referred to as green sheen, is the exaggeration of a company’s environmental credentials to appear more eco-friendly than they are in reality. The goal of greenwashing is twofold: 1) it aims to attract customers who are conscious about their environmental impact, and 2) it allows businesses to portray themselves as socially responsible companies without actually making any real-world changes that would reduce their environmental footprint.
Why do companies greenwash?
Companies greenwash for various reasons, but it all typically boils down to a single reason: financial gain. Greenwashing is often identified by vague language, ‘green’ buzzwords, or a disproportionate focus on “sustainability” claims rather than actually carrying out sustainable practices. You know the type, I’m sure. The companies that lean heavily into the “Look at us! We’re environmentally friendly” rhetoric.
Beyond the language and false claims, companies also engage in greenwashing by using misleading labeling or burying environmentally unsound practices in the fine print of their products.
So why is greenwashing bad?
These practices are deceitful and unethical as it misleads investors and consumers actively trying to do “the right thing” by seeking environmentally friendly companies or products.
Further, as reported by a recent study, greenwashing is viewed by consumers as an egregious act that, when identified, can damage their reputation, harm customer loyalty, and lead to legal action from competitors or regulators. Moreover, it causes confusion among consumers, making it difficult to make informed decisions about purchases. And, even worse, it muddies the waters, making it almost impossible for well-meaning consumers to source genuinely environmentally friendly products.
How Can A Business Avoid Greenwashing?
Unfortunately, greenwashing is now so prevalent that it has resulted in more than half of American consumers either “sometimes” or “never” believing companies’ environmental claims.
Heavy! No matter. Take a deep breath… it’s not all bad.
Amidst the deception and confusion caused by greenwashing tactics, there are solutions to greenwashing that your brand can employ.
Let’s look at how this is achieved.
Do The Work To Make Your Business Sustainable
To begin your journey toward environmental friendliness, you should assess your business’s current practices and identify areas that need improvement. This requires understanding the environmental impacts associated with your industry and comprehensive research of available solutions.
Here are ways that you can assess areas for improvement:
- Conduct a sustainability audit by reviewing your business’s energy, water, and waste usage.
- Use benchmarks to compare your business’s performance against industry standards or best practices.
- Gather feedback from customers, employees, suppliers, and other stakeholders to identify areas of improvement.
- Participate in certification programs to assess performance and identify areas for improvement.
- Identify and quantify environmental impacts throughout your products’ life cycle.
Once you’ve got your head around possible solutions, the next step is developing a roadmap for sustainable operations. Your roadmap should include specific objectives and an action plan to achieve them. For example, if the goal is to reduce energy consumption by 10%—a cost-saving and marketable initiative—clear milestones should be set and appropriate measures implemented to reach your goals.
And no slacking off.
To keep yourself accountable, implement regular reviews to monitor your business’ progress and ensure the targets you’ve set are being met or, better yet, exceeded.
Another effective method of making your business more eco-friendly is to use a sustainable shopping cart.
Avoid Making Vague or Unrelated Statements
The European Commission found 42% of online green claims by businesses in sectors such as garments and fashion, cosmetics, and household equipment were exaggerated, false, or deceptive and qualified as greenwashing.
No wonder environmental claims do nothing to build customer trust.
To be sure your business isn’t contributing to this problem, avoid using vague or unrelated statements that could be viewed as greenwashing. To achieve this, take the following tips on board:
- Make specific claims about the environmental impact of your products or services, and provide evidence to support those claims.
- Develop clear policies regarding how your business will reduce its carbon footprint in the future and communicate them clearly with customers and stakeholders.
- Ensure that any certifications used on labels or within marketing materials are recognized and reputable, and avoid making claims that are not substantiated.
- Be aware of the context in which your claims are made, and avoid making claims that are likely to mislead consumers.
- Regularly review and update your environmental claims and ensure they are accurate and up-to-date.
There’s a massive cry by consumers for transparency. So rather than being a part of the problem, be a part of the solution by being open and honest about how your business conducts itself.
Follow these sustainable marketing practices.
Use Verifiable Claims
The upward trend in demand for sustainable products is quite remarkable. Since 2009, the global increase in consumers who prefer sustainable shopping solutions has skyrocketed by some 51-59 percent. Despite this demand, as you read above, it can be challenging for customers to identify genuine green initiatives from those masquerading as such.
One of the most effective methods to combat this sentiment is to use verifiable claims.
Verifiable claims refer to information that can be independently validated by a third-party source, such as sustainability certifications, objective data, and scientific research.
There are several third-party organizations that you could use to verify your sustainability initiatives, some of which include:
- Carbon Trust: Carbon Trust is an independent organization that helps businesses and organizations to measure, reduce, and communicate their carbon footprint.
- Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): GOTS is a global standard for organic textiles, including ecological and social criteria.
- LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design): LEED is a certification program for green buildings that recognizes best-in-class building strategies and practices.
The ability of your business to demonstrate its commitment to protecting the environment should not be taken lightly. If verifiable evidence of your business’s green initiatives isn’t clearly communicated to your customers, they will likely assume your claims are simply marketing hype instead of real progress toward sustainability.
Be Honest, Not Perfect
Once a company’s environmental record has been tarnished, it’s a tough place to come back from—particularly for small- to mid-sized enterprises. Perhaps even worse, misleading green marketing can lead to more than just a hit to a company’s reputation; it can also have legal and financial consequences.
Unfortunately, there are endless greenwashing examples. These include:
- Banana Boat has marketed its sunscreen products as “reef-friendly” when they contain ingredients that harm coral reefs and other marine life. Result: September 2021 class-action lawsuit—result pending.
- McDonald’s promotes menu items such as the Big Mac as sustainable while using packaging materials detrimental to the environment. Result: March 2022 class-action complaint—result pending.
Okay. The sustainable claims of large corporations being disproven wouldn’t come as much of a shock to most people.
But one such company you may not expect to be mixed up in this kind of controversy is Thinx.
If you don’t know who Thinx is, they are a New York-based brand that manufactures period-absorbing underwear. Because of the nature of their products, one of the brand’s most significant selling points is their underwear reduces plastic waste generated by disposable period products. Not to mention Thinx also promotes sustainable practices by manufacturing its products from organic materials.
The problem is, Thinx now finds itself fighting a class action.
The ongoing lawsuit alleges that Thinx’s signature underwear contains per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), harmful chemicals linked to fertility issues, environmental pollution, and certain cancers. In Thinx’s defense, they deny the allegations against their products, insisting the company did nothing “improper or unlawful” and that PFAS “is not intentionally added to Thinx Period Underwear at any stage of production.”
At the end of the day, the jury’s still out. And whether Thinx is negligible of misconduct is still being determined.
But that’s not the real issue. What truly matters is once a business has had its name tarnished by greenwashing, it’s difficult to clear itself of wrongdoing. That’s why honesty is so essential when promoting eco-friendly initiatives. Even if the allegations aren’t accurate or the actions are unintentional, greenwashing can severely impact a company’s reputation.
To avoid this, businesses should be transparent about their efforts and challenges when combating environmental issues. If your business is making progress on the sustainability front but has yet to reach its goals, you should communicate what has been achieved and your plans for future improvement.
And be sure not to overstate your accomplishments or those of other businesses within the industry when communicating with customers.
As you’ve just read, it’s simply not worth putting your business’s reputation and hard work on the line.
Greenwashing is a dangerous practice for businesses to engage in and is likely to have a long-lasting, negative impact on a company’s reputation.
Even inadvertent greenwashing can cause a backlash against your company. Avoid using statements or imagery that could give rise to accusations of false advertising. It’s best only to make accurate and factual claims and to do the work needed to incorporate sustainable practices into your business.
Don’t fall prey to the dangers of greenwashing.