Greenwashing is an expression used to convey a false impression or provide misleading information about how an organization’s products, services or mission are environmentally responsible and sustainable. It is a marketing strategy to induce and deceive those consumers who prefer to consume goods and services from environmentally friendly brands. These organizations that practice greenwashing often spend more time and money on marketing themselves, projecting this “eco-friendly” image, than they actually spend on actions to minimize their environmental impact.

The term greenwashing was first used in 1986 by Jay Westerveld, an American environmentalist and researcher. He was writing about a trip he had taken to Fiji three years earlier where he stayed at a beach resort. There he saw a note asking customers to reuse their towels. The resort claimed this would protect the ocean and reefs. The irony was that, at the same time, the hotel was expanding further into local land, building new bungalows without thinking about the consequences for the surrounding environment. And, of course, it was obvious that the towel situation was created as a measure to save on laundry costs. While the resort claimed to care about the environment, its actions said otherwise.

It’s easy to understand why marketers and many complacent CEOs abuse Greenwashing: according to GreenPrint’s 2021 Business of Sustainability Index, 64% of Gen X consumers (born between 1965 and 1981) would spend more on a product if it comes from a sustainable brand, and that number jumps to 75% among millennials (people born between 1981 and 1995).

CEOs confirm: my company practices greenwashing  

After reading this introduction, you should certainly already have your own opinion about a company declaring itself environmentally responsible and not implementing effective actions. I particularly dislike this type of marketing. Misleading the consumer in any way is not something we should condone.

And then we see a news post that saddens any enthusiast of topics such as ESG or sustainability. Harris Poll’s anonymous Google Cloud survey asked nearly 1,500 CEOs and other C-level leaders at companies with more than 500 employees about their role in addressing climate change and their commitment to sustainability. And here comes the unsettling part: 58% of respondents said their companies practice greenwashing. Another 66% questioned whether their companies’ sustainability efforts are genuine or not. Going one step further, about two-thirds of leaders agreed that they want to advance sustainability efforts but don’t know how to actually implement them. But would that be an acceptable reason to practice false advertising like greenwashing?

Unfortunately, as the world embraces the pursuit of more sustainable practices, corporations get proportionately involved in false environmental claims. Some say that greenwashing is rarely caused by malicious plans focused on deceiving and is usually the result of excessive enthusiasm. Regardless of the reason, the practice should be avoided at all costs.

How to avoid and prevent greenwashing?

The number one advice from experts to avoid and prevent greenwashing in your business is: promote transparency! Especially when it comes to the environmental benefits of your products or services. That means taking honest steps to operate in a more sustainable way, setting actionable goals, tracking your progress, and producing verifiable reports. Here are some more suggestions on how to avoid this practice.

1. Act strategically on sustainability issues

Developing a grounded strategy is key to take assertive measures and make your business truly sustainable. Moreover, following the guidelines of an established framework and actively incorporating the purposes into the organization’s strategic objectives provides authenticity to sustainable practices and enables transparent communication.

2. Receive and assess feedback

Having a line of communication with stakeholders, especially customers, is a way to be aware of how the brand’s actions are satisfying consumers. Receiving feedback is extremely valuable. Above all, be open to outside perspective on the reach and perception of the company’s product, service, or image.

3. Involve all stakeholders

It is certainly a complicated task to have control over all the specifics involving an organization. From suppliers to investors, each one has an idea and priority, resulting in a variety of sustainable values. However, the greater the participation of stakeholders in your sustainable strategy, the more impactful it will be.

4. Be honest

Combined with transparency, honesty is fundamental in the disclosure of information linked to sustainability. People value honesty, and it builds trust for your company, attracting even more loyal customers. Make the facts clear and accessible, rather than vague and out of context. A valuable tip here is: if you are unable to be 100% compliant with the sustainability actions that are imposed on your organization, it is best to recognize the problem areas and clearly outline how you will work to address them.

Compensating many other unsustainable practices with a sustainable act is not a solution! Most of the time, customer empathy will overcome the fact that you haven’t achieved all your goals yet, and they will admire your courage to admit the shortcomings and the bravery to fight for what is right.

5. Do your research and act according to the law

There are strict regulations on how you can label your packaging. Using terms like ‘recyclable’, ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘sustainable’, if not true, may even be illegal. Always support your sustainability claims with evidence and use other media channels to reinforce these claims.

6. Make sustainability a company-wide initiative

Using sustainability in your marketing requires a very comprehensive approach. You must show the commitment and involvement of your employees with environmental issues at multiple levels of your company. Once greenwashing destroys trust in your brand, it is extremely difficult to rebuild it. That’s why you need an overall green marketing strategy.

ESG eBook

A credible green marketing strategy must be applicable to the entire company. You should think about the environmental impact of your entire production cycle. Of course, it’s very difficult to transform your entire process overnight, but that shouldn’t make you abandon green marketing altogether! Remember, you can avoid greenwashing if you are honest and transparent about your improvement plans.

7. Set realistic goals

Your goals should be neither so simple that they are easy to achieve nor so ambitious that they become unattainable. Consider your resources, what talents and skills you already have and what your proposal for change is. That is, set your goals based on your entire context and your ability to achieve them.

Final considerations

A brand’s environmental awareness is no longer a reason for praise when it is noticed. Nowadays, it is a matter of shame when one is absent. However, we should reinforce the fact that words are not enough. What the public really wants to see is real action and proven results.

Greenwashing is unethical and dishonest and can be very damaging to an organization’s reputation. Consumers are increasingly prioritizing brands they consider environmentally friendly while boycotting companies that don’t meet their expectations. My final tip for you is: don’t be like the 58% of CEOs in the interview mentioned in this post and avoid any possibility of greenwashing in your organization. Take responsibility and understand that flaws exist but keep in mind how and when you will correct them.

Stand out from your competition by continuing to be transparent about your activities and including sustainability in your brand’s core values. Long-term loyalty of your audience will be your biggest reward.

 

 

Camilla Christino

Author

Camilla Christino

Business Analyst at SoftExpert, completed a Bachelor's in Food Engineering at Instituto Mauá de Tecnologia. She has solid experience in the quality area in the food industries with a focus on monitoring and adapting internal and external auditing processes, documentation of the quality management system (ISO 9001, FSSC 22000, ISO / IEC 17025), Quality Control, Regulatory Affairs, GMP, HACCP and Food Chemical Codex (FCC). She is also certified as a leading auditor in the ISO 9001: 2015.

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