Greenwashing: The Sinful Signs of a Business

Sam Oakes
April 19, 2022
Sustainability

Nowadays, it feels like every brand positions themselves as sustainable and eco-friendly, giving their brand the edge against their competition. But how can you check that firms really are as green as they say they are? And as a brand, how do you make sure that you are truly promoting your brand values in the correct manner? 

The culprit to various brands’ messages? Greenwashing.

What is Greenwashing? 

Greenwashing is when a brand creates marketing messages and campaigns based on false claims that they are eco-friendly, green or sustainable. They could be promoting that they are environmentally conscious, without making any noticeable sustainability changes and efforts. Even brands who are sustainable can fall victim to greenwashing (by accident) due to their messaging and marketing tactics. 

In turn, greenwashing can mislead consumers into believing that they are helping the local community or planet, which has increased trust issues that consumers have for sustainable brands and their practices. 

So, what are some of the most common greenwashing signs in a brand’s messaging or campaigns that consumers (and brands) can look out for? 

Common Signs of Greenwashing

  1. False statements and labelling

Brands are able to make claims about their business, through adverts or labels on products - and whilst they may be enticing, how much of them is true? The Advertising Standards Authority has final review over adverts in the UK, in which they have banned a string of brands in the past few months due to misleading advertisement. 

For example, Innocent Drinks with their recycling-focused messaging on their ‘Little Drinks, Big Dreams’ campaigns, whilst still producing single-use plastic products. 

Labelling ingredients or materials in products as ‘eco-friendly’, ‘organic’ or ‘all-natural’ can be misleading and false advertisement, especially if not all of the ingredients or materials fall into this category. 

  1. “Green” buzzwords and vagueness

The most common buzzwords: “green”, “eco”, “sustainable”. These phrases are regularly used by brands to promote their products or services in a brighter light, adding more appeal to their business. However, brands use these words but may not back it up with scientific proof or evidence. 

Sometimes, brands create statements about their products being “recyclable”, “non-toxic” or “made from biodegradable materials” without providing the full picture. These statements create confusion about which components of a brand’s product are recyclable, how they are non-toxic and what materials are used to be classed as biodegradable. 

One example of this is from Edward Bulmer Limited, claiming they had “the most eco-friendly paint on the market” and “natural paints” in 2018. ASA investigated this to find that their paints were of “natural origin” but did not use all natural ingredients, along with no origin details to support their claims about “the most eco-friendly”. 

Any claims that are using “green” buzzwords need to be backed up by brands to ensure they upheld their ethics and transparency to consumers, ensuring that a brand’s statement is clearly understood by all consumers. This could either be backed up by scientific evidence or through sharing certifications from governing boards, organisations or reviews from the government on their products. 

  1. The lesser of two evils and selective disclosure

This type of issue is caused when brands promote an environmentally friendly benefit to their product, when in reality the overall product impact can outweigh the benefits, doing more harm than good. 

For example, some car manufacturers may promote the improved fuel efficiency behind electrical vehicles, whilst ignoring the impact that mining practices have on the environment when producing lithium batteries.

This way, brands can almost get away with promoting a sustainable method to their products, whilst ignoring the overall impact of their product. Consumers will then buy more into the products and services, whilst unwillingly and unknowingly contributing to harming the planet. 

  1. Attention to smaller actions, rather than the whole image

You may find it sometimes where a brand has donated money to a charity and you think to yourself “How nice of them! They must really care about our community/environment”.

This can be great for brands who are wanting to become more sustainable and environmentally responsible. However, their products and services need to reflect their actions. 

If a fast food restaurant contributes to the British Heart Foundation or if pubs like Wetherspoons promote safer drinking regulations whilst allowing alcohol to start being served at 9am, then it defeats the objective of their overall purpose. 

Brands that are looking to make changes in their community need to do so within their own business as well, making changes to their products and processes to reflect their actions. 

  1. Carbon Offsetting Smokescreen

You may have heard of carbon offsetting before - this is when brands will balance their own emissions by finding ways to remove the same amount of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Whilst this may be good, the issue remains that some brands are actually not doing anything to reduce their carbon emissions. 

It’s like putting a plaster over the issue rather than dealing with it. 

This form of greenwashing allows for brands to claim they are meeting emissions targets whilst continuing to emit greenhouse gases. 

A recent report from NewClimate Institute found that conglomerate companies, such as Nestlé and Unilever, may be guilty of this type of greenwashing, with Greenpeace stating this use of offset is a “get out of jail free card”. 

Since offsetting can take years before any definitive results are delivered, the issue remains that emissions are still being pumped into the atmosphere. Instead of offsetting, brands can improve their processes to ensure that they are reducing their emissions at the present time. 

How to Avoid Greenwashing?

Sometimes, a brand may be guilty of greenwashing without even realising it. So, for brands that are looking to make positive changes that align with their vision, how do you go about avoiding greenwashing? 

Tip Number 1: Transparency

When it comes to your products or services, make sure that you are being honest about the environmental benefits they have. If possible, provide evidence that can support your statements to show that your brand is genuine and can be trusted. If you have any facts that can backup your statements or meet standards set out by trusted organisations, then include these. 

Tip Number 2: Align your environmental values with your brand

For your brand’s products or services, make sure that they match up with your brand’s vision for the future. If you use third parties for the creation of your products, then research eco-friendly suppliers who support your brand’s values. Review your supply chain and processes to see where improvements can be made. 

Tip Number 3: Honesty & Fairness

Be authentic and specific about your sustainability goals, as well as the benefits of using your products or services. When comparing to industry competitors, make sure that you are not misleading your customers - whether this is through your messaging, product labels or branding on your website. 

Tip Number 4: Avoid “Green” Buzzwords and Visuals

It is fine to use terms such as ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘organic’ but make sure that these are 100% true and represent your brand. Be specific with the benefits that your products or services offer. For visual components, using green imagery doesn’t necessarily mean you are eco-friendly. Represent your brand in the most authentic way possible and align with your messaging and ethos. 

Greenwashing is Not the Answer to Success

It may seem easy to fall into the trap of greenwashing with your marketing efforts, but they can be easily avoided if your brand’s vision is true to having a positive environmental impact and promoting sustainability. 

For brands that are serious about sustainability and their ecological footprint, make sure that your statements are clear and easy to understand. Avoid using jargon and be honest about your products or services' impact on the environment. 

At the end of the day, it all boils down to your brand’s values and mission - what do you want to say to consumers about your brand and how are you going to achieve your goals? It is important that your brand’s voice and values are intertwined with every aspect of your business, showcasing your authenticity and commitment to sustainability. 

Do you need help with sustainable branding? 

At Reward, we can help conscious DTC brands to stand out in an overcrowded digital space, ensuring that you avoid greenwashing. We are a digital marketing agency based in Manchester, backed by a team of dedicated individuals who align with your sustainability goals.

If you would like help in marketing your brand in the best light, then contact Reward today for a free consultation with the team. 

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