What is greenwashing and how to avoid it

We support companies at any stage of their sustainability journey to help communicate in an authentic and transparent way to help tackle greenwashing.

Charlotte Cameron
Planet Mark
How to avoid greenwashing
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Considering the global efforts to tackle climate change across all sectors, consumers decisions are increasingly made based on companies’ environmental claims. Reducing environmental harm or having a positive impact on the planet is not only a nice-to-have, but now a must-have for competitive businesses. But this can lend itself to brands and companies putting out misleading, exaggerated or false environmental claims – now commonly referred to as greenwashing.  

The Cambridge Dictionary describes greenwashing as actions by companies to “make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.” These types of claims do not necessarily have to be through words, but can be expressed or implied in many ways through symbols, graphics, logos, colours or product names, for examples.  

According to the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) some common environmental claims that are often used as part of a company’s marketing and communications, and therefore susceptible to greenwashing can be:  

– Sustainable or good for the planet 

– Environmentally friendly 

– Recyclable 

– Zero emissions or lower emissions 

– Green or greener 

– Carbon neutral, climate neutral or net zero 

– Use of the colour green or blue in certain contexts 

– Plastic free or other ‘free of’ claims 

In his first post on Instagram, Sir David Attenborough commented that “Saving our planet is now a communications challenge.” Brands and companies have an opportunity to help shape a brighter future for our planet, but this must be done in an authentic and credible way.  

UN greenwashing panel

With the number of adverts banned for greenwashing tripled in a year, according to the Independent, guidance and actions are needed to ensure companies are walking the talk on their sustainability credentials. In March, the United Nations appointed an expert panel, led by Canada’s former environment minister, to curb greenwashing in relation to net zero claims.  

The panel of 16 members will make recommendations before the end of the year on standards and definitions, ways of measuring and verifying progress and translating that into international regulations. As well as examining net zero pledges made in the private sector, the panel will scrutinise the commitments by local and regional governments who don’t report directly to the United Nations.  

The UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, “Despite growing pledges of climate action, global emissions are at an all-time high…Tougher net-zero standards and strengthened accountability around the implementation of these commitments can deliver real and immediate emissions cuts.” 

How to address it and prevent it

Recently, the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) has issued a landmark piece of guidance that covers how brands can ensure their sustainability claims are credible for both consumers and regulators. The guidance lists six global environmental principles based on international best practice. They are:  

– Claims must not be likely to mislead, and the basis for them must be clear 

– Marketers must hold robust evidence for all claims likely to be regarded as objective and capable of substantiation. 

– Marketing communications must not omit material information. Where time or space is limited, marketers must use alternative means to make qualifying information readily accessible to the audience and indicate where it can be accessed. 

– Marketers must base general environmental claims on the full lifecycle of their product or business, unless the marketing communication states otherwise, and must make clear the limits of the lifecycle. 

– Products compared in marketing communications must meet the same needs or be intended for the same purpose. The basis for comparisons must be clear and allow the audience to make an informed decision about the products compared. 

– Marketers must include all information relating to the environmental impact of advertised products that is required by law, regulators or Codes to which they are signatories. 

Source: Global Guidance on Environmental Claims, World Federation of Advertisers  

The best way to communicate your sustainability commitments and achievements is to initially understand the impact your company is having on the planet and work towards making real and continuous improvements.  

Only once you have examined the impact you are having can you communicate authentically.

You can be honest and transparent about where you have issues, areas to improve on, what can be achieved and what is possible. Take your customers and stakeholders on the journey with you so you can help to inspire others. Setting actionable goals, tracking progress, and producing reports can help support this.  

Credible sustainability themed and ESG communication

One of the crucial aspects of the three-step process to Planet Mark certification is communication. We support companies at any stage of their sustainability journey to communicate their achievements, targets, challenges and opportunities with credibility and transparency. 

We know it is not enough to act in pockets of isolation. We need to share our challenges and successes transparently and in doing so inspire and empower others to do the same. 

Credible and inspiring sustainability communications require skills to change behaviours, encourage action, and bring your strategy to life. It will clearly show your organisations’ progress against long-term goals, while bringing your journey to live through impactful storytelling.  

Tips to avoid greenwashing

1. Be transparent about your commitments 

By showcasing your commitments, your brand demonstrates not only where it plans to be, but offers a transparent view into where it is at currently. These commitments must be backed up with an action plan, and there needs to be clear and measurable steps detailed in order to get there.  

2. Be clear and accurate 

Be able to thoroughly define any sustainability term you are using. For instance, a company going “green” is ambiguous and may have unintended meanings.  

3. Substantiate any claims with external governance 

Ensure that any claims your company makes are backed up by robust and up-to-date data and evidence and verified through external governance. This evidence should be made publicly available if possible.  

4. Involve your stakeholders 

The more people who are engaged with your sustainability strategy, the stronger it will be. Make sure you involve all stakeholders across your business. This can help you identify gaps and areas for improvement. This can also install a greater sense of purpose with internal stakeholders by having them be actively involved in your sustainability journey. This has other benefits like reducing staff turnover. According to McKinsey & Company,nearly two-thirds of US-based employees said that Covid-19 caused them to consider their purpose in life, with nearly half reconsidering the type of work they do. For many employees, this means finding a role within a purpose-driven organisation: a business that is putting purpose before regulators,taking action on global issues beyond the products or services they provide.   

5. Be honest 

Honesty fosters trust which is a critical aspect of brand loyalty. Honest and transparent communications about your sustainability journey will resonate with customers and stakeholders. It can also support other organisations in their own sustainability journey. It is ok to disclose if you haven’t met your targets if you share the why’s and lessons learnt so that other organisations can learn with you. This will help us solve our collective global challenges faster. 

Measure, engage and communicate

Communicate is a crucial part of Planet Mark’s three-step process to certification. We give organisations the tools to communicate their progress in an authentic and transparent way. One of the most tangible actions that Planet Mark members take to reinforce their sustainability journey is to share their Planet Mark certificate in the public domain, particularly if they have a dedicated page around sustainability on their website. Being able to substantiate sustainability claims by drawing attention to their certification through their certificate and report shows that they walk the walk when it comes to sustainability. 

Each year at the Planet Mark Awards, we celebrate the organisations in our community who are going above and beyond in their commitment to authentic storytelling and sustainability reporting.  

In 2021, Royal Warrant Holders Association (RWHA) took away the Sustainability Campaign award. The RWHA offer scholarships for the aspiring sustainability leaders of tomorrow to study a Master of Studies in Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cambridge. RWHA also requires that applicants to the Royal Warrant demonstrate an appropriate environmental and sustainability policy and action plan to effectively spread sustainable action through its network of stakeholders. 

Another Planet Mark member, Impress Print, a UK-based printing service, was awarded the Sustainability Transparency award for its thorough reporting. The company found that their efforts resonated with customers who are delighted with the service that they provide and are happy to be part of the environmental solution by choosing Impress. They can reduce the carbon impacts of their customer’s marketing communications, supporting them, in turn, to meet their own carbon reduction objectives, sharing knowledge and understanding of print-related environmental terminology. 

For more information, watch Planet Mark’s CEO Steve Malkin speak at the Advertising Agency’s Ad Net Zero global summit here.  

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