SUSTAINABILITY THEMED MARCOMMS: IS IT SUSTAINABLE OR FRAUGHT WITH GREENWASH DANGER?Over the last 12 months, we have noticed quite a remarkable increase in the adoption of sustainability and environmental themes in clients’ marketing and communications. It’s currently a hot topic for both board rooms and marketing departments. This is of course a good thing, as commercial organisations have a responsibility in leading the way towards a greener economy.
However, it is important to recognise that it is fundamentally a market driven trend that can and is influenced by company advertising and communication. Initially the market wanted greener products and services from more sustainable companies, and companies have been responding to fill the demand. Rapidly growing markets have emerged for green, sustainable and ethical products and services as consumers take environmental action through their purchasing decisions – decisions which are largely based on advertising and corporate communications (in the context of global environmental concerns). As more and more people choose ‘green’ products or companies, more and more businesses are encouraged to innovate in sustainability and clean up their environmental act to position themselves for the emerging green economy.
And as more business promote their green credentials, more consumers are subject to the green message which can influence awareness and potentially lead to consumers taking action through green purchasing decisions. Theoretically a positive feedback loop is established with both the consumer influencing the supplier, and the supplier influencing the consumer towards more sustainable ways.
The problem is that many companies and their marketing departments have started to exploit the green market through the use of unsubstantiated or irrelevant environmental claims, commonly known as greenwashing. Greenwashing can be intentional and explicitly deceiving, or unintentional and vague. Greenwashing is any type of environmental claim, alignment or suggestion which is really more about cashing in on the hot topic rather than expressing the true nature or credentials of a product or company.
Greenwasing can consist of outright lies, the suggestive use of green images or claiming a product is slightly greener than others in a category, even when the whole category is very environmentally damaging. It could be a green product manufactured by a dirty company or some fluffy, non specific communications about eco-friendliness. Greenwash is commonly the term used to describe an organisation that seems to invest more money or effort in advertising their green credentials than they invest in actually establishing and improving environmental practices.
Greenwashing is unsustainable and dangerous as it threatens to undermine the positive consumer-business environmental feedback loop. Consumers, being a savvy lot are wising up to the practice of greenwashing, and are beginning to distrust ‘green’ advertising and communications. In fact, according the the publication, What Assures Consumers on Climate Change , only 10% of consumers trust the green message they receive from business and government – that’s a pretty skeptical crowd that’s out there.
As greenwashing becomes more common, and more people become aware of it, more distrust is given to green claims, and consumers become unlikely to form purchase decisions on the back of those claims. With fewer consumers making green purchasing decisions, fewer business have the incentive to go green, and the positive feedback loop is broken. In order to prevent this from happening, marketing, advertising and communication agencies and their clients need to be vigilant about preventing incidences of greenwashing and campaigns which could be ‘perceived’ as greenwashing.
So, with an overwhelming temptation to spread the green word, how can one avoid their communications being perceived as greenwashing? A good place to start is following the guidelines outlined by the ACCC in their 2008 publication Green marketing and the Trade Practices Act. A simple checklist for marketers at the back of this publication allows you to quickly test if your communications could be perceived as greenwash.
Every organisation has a responsibility to minimise their environmental footprint through efficiencies in waste, water and energy, and strive towards providing sustainable, future focused products and services. And in the current climate of economic change, it’s an ideal time to focus on the part you can play in a more sustainable and green economy. For organisations implementing and achieving significant and legitimate progress in this area, promoting green credentials can be a powerful marketing message, one that not only boosts the bottom line, but also contributes to influencing attitudes about caring for our planet. But beware of the dangers of greenwash.