With the growing interest of consumers in products and services that comply with environmental standards, companies are now more and more convinced of the importance of communicating about their environmental activities. However, not all companies decide to communicate about them for the same reasons. Some do it to follow the trend and imitate their competitors, or maybe to repair a reputation they have damaged throughout the years, while some do it because they indeed have good initiatives worth sharing. Not to forget companies that wish to communicate about their activities but don’t know where or how to start. Although there is a fine line between communicating about these initiatives and greenwashing, a company’s intentions can usually determine whether greenwashing is a misstep that can be fixed or an intentional act that requires strategic change.
To put it into simple words, greenwashing is when a company chooses to invest in marketing itself as sustainable more than being indeed sustainable, which can raise legal and reputational concerns, especially since all information can now be easily verified by consumers online. On the other hand, there are also companies that engage in greenwishing, a practice in which companies unintentionally share false claims of lack of environmental expertise. And sometimes companies, most of the time small companies, choose to underreport their eco-activities for fear of being labeled as greenwashing or of deceiving their customers with their small-scale practices. This phenomenon is referred to as greenhushing.
How can businesses avoid these labels? And how can they communicate rightly?
In 2021, the European Commission and national consumer authorities released the results of a screening of websites to detect Greenwashing cases for companies who claim to offer “eco-friendly” products or services. The findings showed that:
- More than half of the cases did not provide sufficient information for consumers to judge the claim’s accuracy.
- 37% of the cases included vague and general statements like “sustainable”, “eco-friendly”, etc.
- In 59% of the cases, the trader did not provide easily accessible evidence to support its claims.
As a result of what was mentioned, the formula for correct sustainability communication can be summarized in three words: science-based, honest, and unambiguous. To put these words into practice, we need to understand what’s being communicated incorrectly to then avoid repeating it. A famous example of non-science-based communication is companies claiming to achieve climate neutrality while this is a global goal that cannot be achieved at a company level. Another example of dishonest communication is deciding to cherry-pick the beautiful side of a company’s activities while hiding the bad ones. And finally, ambiguous communication is illustrated by throwing generic words like eco-friendly and green products without stating the science behind them. Such practices are on the grow and companies are frequently using these labels without substantiating, especially since eco and green labels are not legally protected That’s why every claim must be substantiated, verifiable, and based on robust evidence. As serious as they can get, these practices can make consumers lose trust in a brand and damage a reputation that is very hard to restore.
Companies that practice intentional greenwashing require a radical change that does not only cover their communication strategy but their whole system. Launching a “green” product in the market or sponsoring an environmental event while all the other services are harmful to the planet can be considered a very high level of greenwashing that cannot be easily repaired with a list of recommendations. Therefore, before communicating about sustainability, companies need to test their own sustainability. What services do they provide? How much is sustainability considered in their decisions and projects?
Staying true to their environmental claims can benefit businesses at so many levels, especially since sustainability is becoming a priority for investors, employees, applicants, and loyal customers. Moreover, communicating correctly about sustainability practices is not only an ethical behavior but also an obligation established by legislation in several countries. The last two years witnessed several greenwashing laws such as in France, Canada, and the United States of America among others. In France for example, the government introduced in 2021 a legal sanction under the consumer code that fines organizations accused of greenwashing up to 80% of the cost of the false campaign and forces them to correct the misleading message on billboards, in the media, and on their website. At the EU level, the European Commission proposed in March 2022 to update the EU consumer rules to ban greenwashing and ensure the rights of consumers to know about the durability, repairs, and updates of products they wish to buy.
The key to avoiding greenwashing is to truthfully walk your audience through your sustainability journey instead of just following the trends. It is important to realize that there are no small-scale sustainability practices and that you don’t have to be perfect in order to communicate about your environmental and social activities. All you need to do is to be transparent and adopt the correct tools that place sustainability at the core of your business. In case of doubt, do not hesitate to request professional assistance, because fixing the consequences of greenwashing can be very financially and reputationally expensive.
If you need guidance in your sustainable business transformation and sustainability communication, reach out to our experts, Julie Bleeker via [email protected] and Géraldine Wirtz via [email protected].