Green. Sustainable. Eco-Friendly. All-Natural. Organic.
Walk into any Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, and you’re bound to see green marketing on everything from eggs to toothpaste. For those looking to decrease their carbon footprint, these changes in consumer purchasing behaviors can be seen as a step in the right direction.
In fact, according to Nielsen, it has become increasingly clear that consumers care about their purchasing decisions, with 73 percent of global consumers saying they would definitely or probably change their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment. Almost half of the consumers from around the world, or 41 percent, have said they would be willing to pay more for organic or all-natural products.
However, hidden among those leafy logos peppered with flowery language lies a deceitful advertising gimmick. In the spirit of Earth Day, when many companies will crank up the ad spend on their ‘eco-friendly’ products, we’d like to warn you about greenwashing.
What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is the practice of using deceptive marketing techniques to persuade consumers that an organization’s products and vision are environmentally-friendly. The consumer landscape is littered with companies that have been accused of greenwashing, seemingly aligning themselves with pro-environment causes while violating environmental standards.
Futerra, the international sustainability agency, outlined 10 basic brand marketing tactics to avoid on its 2015 Selling Sustainability Report.
- Fluffy Language: Words or terms with no clear meaning, e.g. ‘eco-friendly.’
- Green Products vs. Dirty Company: Such as efficient light bulbs made in a factory that pollutes rivers.
- Suggestive Pictures: Green images that indicate a (un-justified) green impact e.g. flowers blooming from exhaust pipes.
- Irrelevant Claims: Emphasizing one tiny green attribute when everything else is un-green.
- Best In Class? Declaring you are slightly greener than the rest, even if the rest are pretty terrible.
- Just Not Credible: ‘Eco-friendly’ cigarettes anyone? ‘Greening’ a dangerous product doesn’t make it safe.
- Gobbledygook: Jargon and information that only a scientist could check or understand.
- Imaginary Friends: A ‘label’ that looks like third party endorsement… except it’s made up.
- No Proof: It could be right, but where’s the evidence?
- Out-right Lying: Totally fabricated claims or data.
Examples of Greenwashing in Marketing
In 2011, Fiji Water found itself the target of a lawsuit for deceptive marketing practices, claiming to be “carbon-negative.” The woman who brought forward the lawsuit accused Fiji Water of using a practice known as “forward crediting,” meaning the company was giving itself credit for carbon reductions that hadn’t even happened yet. She argued that she chose Fiji Water over its competitors, expecting that the carbon-negative label meant the company was currently taking steps in reducing carbon emissions. However, the offsets were not currently occurring, and the company shared in a press release that the offsets necessary to make it carbon-negative would not be realized until 2037. And although this happened 9 years ago, we’re still not sure Fiji is finished greenwashing. I mean, have you seen their “Created By Nature” commercials? While staying hydrated is important, bottled water sold in single-use plastic and shipped across the world is nothing to celebrate.
In April 2019, fast-fashion chain H&M launched its Conscious Collection, claiming that each piece in the collection was made from sustainably sourced materials, such as 100 percent organic cotton, Tencel or recycled polyester. However, in late 2019 the Norwegian Consumer Authority (CA) called out the Swedish retailer for greenwashing saying it did not provide sufficient information about the sustainability of the collection and arguing that the fashion retailer made general claims in the marketing of its products by not specifying the amount of recycled material for each garment.
What is Green Marketing?
Green marketing is the practice of promoting products or services based on their environmental benefits. It is focused on the long-term protection of consumers and society by promoting the use of high-quality products with little to no effect on the environment. It should be honest, transparent and must meet different standards including:
- Manufactured in a sustainable manner.
- Free of toxic materials or ozone-depleting substances.
- Able to be recycled and/or produced from recycled materials.
- Made from renewable sources, such as bamboo or wool.
- It does not use excessive packaging.
- Designed to last longer and be repairable.
Companies That Nailed Sustainable & Green Marketing:
An example of transparency is the outdoor clothing and lifestyle company, Patagonia. Unlike some companies that choose to keep some information from the public, Patagonia does not gloss over where it falls short and shares its vision with consumers. On Patagonia’s website, you can find curated content on the steps they’re taking to make a more sustainable product, sections on environmental and social responsibility, and more.
Patagonia does not pretend to have all the answers. In fact, on its website, Patagonia shares an excerpt of “The Responsible Company,” by Yvon Chouinard, founder and owner of Patagonia, which reads: “We can’t pose Patagonia as the model of a responsible company. We don’t do everything a responsible company can do, nor does anyone else we know. But we can illustrate how any group of people going about their business can come to realize their environmental and social responsibilities, then begin to act on them; how their realization is progressive: actions build on one another.”
The New Zealand-American footwear company that designs environmentally friendly footwear has been a Certified B Corporation since December 2016, a new kind of business that balances purpose and profit. They are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community and the environment. On its website, Allbirds shares information on the materials it uses and lists third-party endorsements they’d acquired, such as Proforest. Founders Joey Zwillinger and Tim Brown have been outspoken about the environment and retailers’ responsibility for it.
4 Strategies To Earn Consumer Trust
- Walk The Talk. Your employees want to see you leading by example and acting in ways consistent with your professed commitments before they embrace new policy changes. If your company’s core values do not align with your personal values, you will have a hard time enforcing and exemplifying them for others. Take time to clarify your company’s values and observe your employees to see if there is a disconnect between policies and behavior.
- Be Transparent. Transparency is critical for building trust in the workplace, and job seekers these days are eager to work for companies that demonstrate transparency and integrity, have a distinct vision, and clear, straightforward communication. That being said, your customers will expect the same level of transparency and will want updates and details on new products, updates on corporate practices, and progress reports.
- Third-Party Endorsements. External audits provide independent, third-party assessments of a company’s structure and internal control requirements, providing a thorough look at factors such as policies, traceability, supplier relationships, worker empowerment, and environmental management. Some eco-labels your customers might look for include recycling certifications, ENERGY STAR, and USDA Certified Organic, among others.
- Reinvest In The Community. Giving back to the community, whether it be locally or nationally, is one of the most important attributes of sustainability and it is good for your bottom line. By creating and sustaining a positive reputation in the community, you’ll be able to improve employee attraction and retention, form strong and strategic partnerships with like minded businesses, benefit from the media coverage and create awareness of your brand beyond your surrounding areas.
If your company is working toward its sustainability goals, do share your journey and authentic brand story with your audience. However, do not harm your brand’s reputation just because you want to hop on a trend.