Let’s put greenwashing through the wringer
Many manufacturers, retailers and brands have received accusations of greenwashing – but is it always justified? ‘Greenwashing’ is what you might think of as ‘environmental spin’: using PR and marketing to exaggerate an organisation’s environmental credentials, whether discussing the way they do business or any products that they’ve made
But let’s be honest: if you change the way you do business and it has a positive impact on the environment, then communicating your genuine successes doesn’t qualify as greenwashing. It’s celebrating success and sharing best practice – and if that brings financial improvement and presents you has having a competitive advantage, all the better. All too often, people assume that financial and environmental benefits for a business must be mutually exclusive. They’re not – they should go hand in hand.
The press would have us believe that everyone is at it – but I believe it’s far from true that greenwashing is the norm. There are cases – we can all think of examples – but their shadow shouldn’t tarnish the good work that companies do to become more environmentally friendly. There are also whipped-up stories that retailers wage ‘green wars’ against each other, in a bid to garner public support. But a lot of these ‘wars’ are cynically re-spinning the actions of reputable organisations who should be able to take pride in their green credentials.
But the good news is that when organisations put positive environmental actions at the heart of their communications strategy, people respond to it – and it keeps the most important global issue at the top of the agenda.
The ‘greening’ of the consumer
The big push to be green is driven by enlightened sustainability and corporate social responsibility strategies in business, and by legislation at government level. But we shouldn’t ignore the consumer’s place in the cycle.
Consumers demand products a certain way, or we don’t buy them. Seasonal fruit all year, individual items delivered to our doors – we want it a certain why, so who can blame organisations for providing what we tell them we want?
And yet, research tells us that consumers are increasingly considering sustainability issues in their decision-making processes. Brands that can offer transparency through making genuine environmental improvements will win consumer approval. The problem arises when transparency disappears: if claims of ‘greenest emissions’ and ‘trees being saved’ cannot be backed up with facts.
If it’s spin that can’t be substantiated, it’s greenwashing, and it will drive consumers away.
Your brand can’t afford a cover up
If an organisation recycles 80% of its waste, then it should be telling its customers – but it should be showing proof of the statistic.
Is 80% good?
Is it bad?
Is it greenwash?
Tell the whole story.
Tell customers how much waste you produce, how much you recycle, and what your plans for improvement are. Be sure that the 80% you’re promoting is actually what’s being recycled.
You need to know what your waste management partner is doing. Don’t just throw everything into one container and assume that your contractor is recycling it all. Take responsibility: follow the path of that material so you can be confident that where you say it’s ending up is where it’s actually ending up, and work with waste management partners who really support your goals. This will protect your brand from suspicion – and from accusations of passing the buck to someone else.
If you’re confident that you’re doing the right thing, you can defend against any accusations of greenwashing – whether they come from customers or from journalists. Maintain truth and clarity around your own eco-story and the ethics seem to take care of themselves.
If you’re not covering anything up, there’s no whistle-blowing tale to tell.
Wringing out the truth
We all want to expose poor environmental practice. In doing so, we’ll eradicate greenwashing, too. But it’s only fair to label something as greenwash if businesses can’t provide the transparency to substantiate their claims.
There is a great deal of evidence to say that consumers make buying decisions based on sustainability and environmental impact, so it’s important for organisations to be honest. Plus, doing business sustainably saves money as well as making money. It’s not an and/or, it’s both.
Every business has different priorities, but thankfully it just happens that lean, green practice is good for the environment and good for business. It’s a win-win scenario.