Greenwashing – the latest threat to your reputation and how to avoid it

by The Giles Agency

At The Giles Agency, we have a long history of helping clients with their ESG communications and we’ve been pleased to see those key actions and messages making their way out of sustainability reports and into marketing communications. However, this shift has created a lot of concern around the issue of ‘greenwashing’, with many companies accused of painting a less-than-realistic image of themselves as environmental stewards for their own gain.

So, let’s look a little closer at what exactly greenwashing is and how best to avoid it!

Let’s kick off in the obvious place, the Wikipedia definition:

Greenwashing is a form of advertising or marketing spin in which green PR and green marketing are deceptively used to persuade the public that an organisation’s products, aims, and policies are environmentally friendly. Companies that intentionally take up greenwashing communication strategies often do so to distance themselves from their own environmental lapses or those of their suppliers.’

Put simply, it is when organisations manipulate messages to have consumers believe they are more green than they actually are.

Getting accused of greenwashing is a serious blight on an organisation’s reputation, and it can happen for a number of reasons, some entirely justified but some less so. Take a large MNC with a robust ESG strategy, for example. They may be working really hard towards ESG goals and thus have a lot of great stories to tell. However, in their developing market outposts, they may struggle to follow the same stringent measures. The global stories don’t reflect some local realities, and low and behold the whole organisation is brought down for greenwashing.

So how can you best ensure your communications aren’t going to be classed as greenwashing? Here are 5 simple tips to follow:

1 Sustainability is not a marketing pillar

ESG strategies should be agreed in the boardroom and enacted throughout a whole organisation. Only then are you in a position to talk about the issue within marketing. Consumers are wise to short-term marketing strategies so if you’re going to use ESG as a marketing tool, you must ensure your claims are backed up across business operations.

2 Give some context

Many organisations set short, mid and long-term goals for ESG, which allow them to benchmark progress and let internal and external parties know what they’re aiming to achieve. But sometimes it’s not enough just to state the goals. It’s a good idea to explain where you’re starting from, why those goals have been selected and what the impact will be on your business, community, consumers, etc.

3 Use data to tell the story

One of the best ways of avoiding accusations of greenwashing is to ensure you have the data to prove what you’re saying is accurate. Now, this point comes with a caution because data can easily be manipulated. If you find yourself in a meeting with someone trying to convince you that their way of reading the data is correct, stay well clear!

4 Consistency is key

No one likes a brand that bandwagon hops, and all too often when a new sustainability trend emerges, brands with no real business commenting suddenly have a lot to say. Have confidence in your strategy and stick to it. The next hot topic might be something you’re already doing, and then you’ll be a natural fit for the conversation.

5 Take an open and transparent approach

Consumers have brains and they aren’t afraid to use them, so be as transparent as possible! If you fall short of a target, explain why and what you intend to do to fix it. This is a much more effective way to garner trust and respect than by spending all year talking about a goal which suddenly disappears, never to be mentioned again. And if the space allows, invite consumers into the conversation. Listen to what they think. Again, this open attitude will benefit you in the long run and build advocates for the brand.

In our experience, many clients let concerns about greenwashing diminish the stories they tell. While it pays to be aware of the issue, it’s a shame when it stops good work from being shared. Ultimately, if you have a challenging but achievable strategy and stay consistent in the way you deliver this to consumers, you and your brand can talk what you’re up to with confidence.