What’s that all about then?
Well, let’s start with greenwashing. Simply put, greenwashing occurs when brands, companies and even individuals spend more time and money promoting their green credentials than, y’know, actually being
green. Much cheaper to talk the talk than walk the walk, right?
At it’s worst, this is done at great cost to our environment. The very term greenwashing was first coined in the 1980s when a guest at Fiji’s Beachcomber resort noted signs urging guests to pick up and reuse their towels to reduce ecological damage on the islands. With no other obvious efforts being made toward sustainability, this was simply the hotel’s creative idea to save on dry cleaning costs. Bad enough, but then also consider this happened at the very same time the Beachcomber was expanding and demolishing chunks of the island.
Yet it isn’t hard to see why so many brands would want to hitch themselves to the ‘green’ wagon, with a 2015 report by Nielsen revealing
66% of consumers are willing to pay more for environmentally sustainable products. For millennials, that jumps to 72%, and it would be safe to bet that both numbers are even higher now, five years on (thanks, Sir David, Greta et al.)
But, is it worth it? Even in less serious cases, greenwashing undertaken by brands – either well-intentioned or not – can be misleading, dishonest, unethical and greatly undermine consumer faith and confidence.
That’s not to say it’s always done with the worst intentions. While researching this blog, I found dozens of examples where brands, big and small, had been called out for greenwashing. Yes, there were some serious cases - and we’ve come a long way from the 1960s when Nuclear power plants would run ads proclaiming how clean and safe they were - but most examples weren’t deliberately malicious or deceiving, and could be put down to over-enthusiasm by the brands.
Today, the phrase can be taken to mean one of two things. The first is when (usually) large corporations make grand gestures designed to divert and distract from their less than stellar environmental records. While misleading and hypocritical, this is also often fairly easy to spot. The second is a bit trickier, and one many health, beauty and other consumer brands could easily fall foul of. We’re talking about when brands and marketing departments use words like ‘sustainable’, ‘eco-friendly’ and even ‘vegan’ to describe their products without any real interrogation or, dare we say, care about what those terms truly mean.
Yet, when done correctly, this second route can offer scope for brands to genuinely boost their green credentials without compromising consumer trust or their brand’s offering. Alternatively referred to as ‘Green Marketing’, this represents a shift in language and behaviour, as this great diagram from J. Ottman Consulting shows.
Put simply, green marketing confronts the fact that marketing and advertising practises are done for the benefit of business, rather than the environment, and looks to change that.
Brands like The Body Shop and Patagonia already practice green marketing. In fact, Patagonia openly admit they aren’t green per-se, but make conscious choices with their products, manufacturing and supply chain that aim to minimise their impact. This honesty and transparency is key. “We know we aren’t perfect, but we’re trying”, is much better than “Look, we’ve planted all these trees, never mind our carbon emissions.”
So, how else can brands avoid accusations of greenwashing and shift towards green marketing?
Don’t make it a ‘thing’.
If you’ve got a one-off marketing campaign that draws attention to your apparent green credentials, I probably wouldn’t bother. Authenticity is key, and your green credentials should be baked into your brand’s DNA and purpose, rather than a marketing opportunity.
Earn the right
What are your credentials and environmental track record? If it is one to be proud of, then roll with it. And is it right for your sector or brand?
Coming back to the question of your brand’s DNA, be proactive. If environmentalism is part of your brand then so be it, but it shouldn’t be reactive and done to placate consumers. Again, it comes back to authenticity.
Use numbers, not words.
Avoid vague words, phrases and claims. Back them up with numbers. It’s easy enough for brands to throw around phrases such as ‘sustainably made’ or ‘eco-friendly’, but savvy consumers are right to want to know what percentage of their products are made with recycled materials for example.
H&M famously fell foul of this, labelling a recent range the ‘Conscious collection’ and prompting Norway’s consumer authority to open an investigation, where they stated: “H&M are not being clear or specific enough in explaining how the clothes in the Conscious collection are more ‘sustainable’ than other products they sell… consumers are being given the impression that these products are more ‘sustainable’ than they actually are”.
So there we have it, less greenwashing and more green marketing. Be open, honest and transparent about what your brand does and what it stands for, with yourself and with your consumers. Just don’t get me started on paper straws….
Posted 4 January 2021 by Ben Waterhouse