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As headlines continue to make abundantly clear, we’re in an environmental crisis: polar ice caps are melting, rainforests are being burned, islands made of plastic are amassing in the ocean. There have been many public responses to this disheartening reality, and one of them is a desire among consumers to use products that help the environment — or at least don’t make it worse.
Many brands have responded to this by changing their practices to be more environmentally friendly, while others have turned to a different tactic: greenwashing. You can avoid potential PR crises by making sure that your brand communications align with what you do. Read on to learn what greenwashing is, why it’s so bad for your brand, and how to avoid it.
Coined in 1986, greenwashing refers to marketing or PR messaging that gives consumers a false impression of how environmentally friendly a company is. All types of brands can succumb to it and it comes in different forms, some actively deceptive and others merely misleading.
It can be very tempting to take quick actions that benefit your company in the short-term but don't tackle systemic issues that your brand is contributing to. After all, almost all brands promote consumption and almost all consumption has a negative impact in some way.
For instance, a company may align their brand with corporate social responsibility by planting a tree for each purchase, but also employ child labour at unsafe factories in Bangladesh. Or (in the example that led to the word’s first usage) a hotel may place cards in rooms asking people to reuse towels for the sake of the environment, when in fact it’s merely a cost-saving measure and the hotel doesn’t have any environmentally-friendly policies.
It perhaps goes without saying that greenwashing is bad for the world at large. It masks the bigger problem — our environmental crisis — with misleading communications, allowing consumers to feel good about purchases that may be doing more harm than good.
What may be less obvious is the ways in which greenwashing is very bad for business. In the social media age, authenticity and transparency have become more essential than ever. People don’t believe scripted lines from big companies anymore; they want the brands they use to reflect and align with their unique identity and values — and, especially in younger generations, environmental responsibility is a core value. Add to this the fact that the internet age has a way of exposing anything an individual or company may want to keep secret, and greenwashing becomes a pretty bad choice.
The mandate is clear: if you want to position your brand as having environmentally-friendly values, you need to make sure that your practices and operations are fully aligned with your communications. If not, when consumers find out the hypocrisy (and they will find out), your brand image will pay the price.
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It seems like every brand these days has some messaging around environmental responsibility, and a lot of the time, those claims aren’t backed up at all. Let’s look at a few significant examples of greenwashing, as well as a couple brands who put their money where their mouth is.
In 2019, in response to the growing sustainability movement, fast-fashion brand H&M launched it’s “Conscious” clothing line, positioning it as “sustainable,” “green,” and “environmentally-friendly” and touting their use of organic cotton. However, there’s not a single legal definition for any of those terms, rendering them meaningless, and fast-fashion brands like H&M are a huge contributor to the environmental crisis (80% of discarded textiles are burned or sent to a landfill). What’s more, it takes 20,000 liters of water to make one cotton shirt, even if that cotton is organic.
The chocolate giant advertises its products as using “sustainably sourced cocoa beans” and “supporting farmers.” But a class action lawsuit issued in 2019 alleges that this is deeply deceptive. In fact, the cocoa comes from farms that use child and slave labor, and there are no environmental standards in place — which is of particular concern given that the chocolate industry destroys rainforests in Africa and uses chemicals that pollute waterways.
This super popular brand rose to the top of the alternative milk game in part because of their commitment to environmental sustainability. That’s why it was such a scandal when it was recently revealed that they took money from Blackstone, an investing group that has also invested in companies that are causing deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.
Alright, now let’s look at some brands who have their environmental messaging and practices aligned:
The outdoors-wear brand has positioned itself as an activist company, with sustainable practices, environmental initiatives, and other activist efforts backing up their claims. Their website even makes it easy for environmental groups to apply for funding from the company.
Ben & Jerry’s
The irreverent ice cream brand has emerged as a bastion of progressive and environmentally-minded ideals. On their website, they clearly outline the sustainability practices they have in place, as well as providing information on the science of the climate crisis and what people can do about it. They’ve also developed a separate foundation devoted fully to philanthropic and sustainability efforts. Ice cream, anyone?
So you want to be a Patagonia, not an H&M, obviously. But avoiding greenwashing can be more complicated than it might seem, especially as a company grows. While you may not be actively deceiving people, it’s quite possible that some brand messaging has developed that isn’t fully aligned with your practices (or vice-versa).
Here are some best practices to ensure that you brand doesn’t fall into the greenwashing trap:
The environmental crisis and consumer demand for sustainability isn’t going anywhere. If you want your brand to get on board with this movement and gain trust and affinity from people, then it’s time to implement environmentally-friendly practices — and once they’re in place, shout it from the rooftops.
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