Customers increasingly buy from what they perceive as eco-minded companies, and governments are tightening environmental regulations on industry. Companies must appear “green” and “sustainable” for their own survival. But when it’s all for show and the reported green activities are a mirage, it’s what’s called “greenwashing.”
A recent McKinsey study covering North America, Europe, and Asia showed that 66% of respondents shopped with sustainability and environmentalism in mind. Society and governments increasingly demand that industry clean up its act.
This means that no matter how un-eco companies are (do you really think fossil fuel companies are somehow greening the planet?), they must present a green front. They must prove they care about the Earth.
The attention itself is a good thing. The actual green efforts of companies can backfire when customers realize they’re being duped.
- What is greenwashing?
- Intentional and accidental greenwashing
- Intentional greenwashing: Innocent Drinks
- Intentional greenwashing: Hyundai NEXO
- (Perhaps) unintentional greenwashing: IKEA
- How can companies avoid greenwashing in their marketing?
- Supply chain oversight
- Clarity is key
- Transparency inspires trust
- Effort trumps perfection
- Avoid ambiguous tradeoffs
- Play by the rules
- Get the message straight to be a truly green company
What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing sees brands try to boost their image by offering products and services with false promises of environmental benefits. This is an attempt to gain credibility and consumer trust, make governments happy, and get the Board of Directors off their back.
Essentially, it’s a strategy that sees more effort in marketing a supposedly eco-friendly product than actually reducing its environmental impact.
Without any real dedication to combating climate change, these false claims of sustainability and environmental commitment fall flat. When environmentalist Jay Westerveld coined the term “greenwashing” in 1986, consumers were forced to rely on the information they received via print, television, and radio.
Today, consumers can easily verify information in near-real-time on their iPhones. With a few thumb flicks, they can then voice their dissatisfaction on Twitter, etc. if they feel they’ve been misled. Retweet, share, and soon a company can have a viral mob at its virtual gates.
The company may have to backpedal or change its ways to respond to this – and quickly. This means greenwashing is dangerous and costly marketing for any business.
So, how do companies actually use these marketing tactics?
Intentional and accidental greenwashing
Giving businesses the benefit of the doubt, we might say that many greenwashing mishaps started out with good intentions. Many good employees truly believe, or WANT to believe, their company is making the world a greener, cleaner, better place.
This can blind them from reality. Others are just flat-out devious. And yet others suffer the cognitive dissonance so familiar to marketers marketing what they know is actually not such a good product or is even a harmful one.
This leads to intentional and unintentional greenwashing.
Intentional greenwashing: Innocent Drinks
When greenwashing is intentional, companies use marketing strategies to spread inaccuracies, though most don’t involve outright falsehoods. It’s more a matter of “spin” (creative interpretation and presentation). Typically, they use generalized or ambiguous language, or they cherry-pick attractive data or activities and overstate them. As a result, they imply the “greenness” of a product. They mislead the customer.
Another marketing tactic involves brands making claims that aren’t easy for the average consumer to verify.
These tactics are essentially no different from claims of “low-fat” food (what about the salt, carbs, and chemicals?) or “user-friendly” electronics (who defines “user-friendly”?).
More than a few globally known brands are guilty of intentionally committing the marketing sin of greenwashing.
UK-based juice and smoothie company Innocent Drinks marketed its “Little Drinks, Big Dreams” campaign as environmentally friendly. It did this by focusing on recycling as a path to repairing the planet. Its whimsical billboards had clever phrases and environmental messages alongside the Innocent name.
The UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) investigated the campaign and found that the company had failed to practice what it preached. After the authority’s discovery that the brand’s bottles contained non-recycled plastic, Innocent Drinks’ message lost all its punch, and the ad campaign was banned.
The ASA concluded the ads’ implication — that supporting Innocent Drinks would be beneficial to the environment — was concluded as misleading. Though without direct falsehoods, this is a perfect example of intentional greenwashing, with a business willfully deceiving its consumers.
Innocent Drinks opted for a more roundabout way in their greenwashing tactic, while Hyundai chose a far more direct falsehood to market their product.
No matter how you look at them, personal automobiles make many great things possible, but they have a monumentally lousy impact on the air, water, urban environments, and so on. And an electric car, in some ways, is even more damaging to the environment.
Intentional greenwashing: Hyundai NEXO
The Hyundai NEXO model was advertised in 2021 as “a car so beautifully clean, it purifies the air as it goes.” While flashy and endearing to the eco-minded driver, this claim was undeniably false. And the ASA was quick to refute the online ad’s accuracy and recommend its ban.
The ASA found that the ad implied to customers that no environmental damage would be caused when driving this car. Naturally, that is an utterly impossible feat.
No form of transport has a negligible impact on the environment. Even bicycles require environmentally detracting production and can end up in landfills. Hyundai’s claim was a model example of outright falsehoods and misleading greenwashing tactics.
(Perhaps) unintentional greenwashing: IKEA
Unintentional greenwashing strategies normally result from good intentions and seem legitimately credible at the outset.
We can’t be in every marketer’s head, but we can hope they don’t involve deliberate methods of deception. But the results can be just as harmful.
Consumers committed to fighting climate change with responsible purchases still feel deceived, and the brand must fight to repair its reputation.
- Good marketing intents = cheap and easy
- Bad marketing outcomes = priceless
With this particular type of greenwashing, businesses are less guilty of marketing trickery and more ignorant of company endeavors. The fault often lies within the supply chain. When a company doesn’t work vertically, it’s difficult for marketing staff to verify certain facts.
For example, some confusion could surround factors such as:
- the source of raw materials
- how materials are used in production or who’s doing or overseeing the production
- and whether the material use and the manufacturing are sustainable and just
IKEA relies on outside sources to provide assurances that the company was acting in line with its status as a sustainable brand. The nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council supplies IKEA with sustainably harvested wood but it failed in its mandate when the lumber used was found to be illegally sourced.
During phases of the supply chain, the unsustainably harvested wood made its way into the production phase, though IKEA denied wrongdoing on its part.
After this 2020 discovery, a whistleblower within the forestry industry claimed this failure was the result of payoffs and corruption. If IKEA is truly blameless, this is a good example of unintentional greenwashing. The company had good intentions, and it even developed its supply chain and oversight to ensure them. And it failed.
So then, the big question:
- How can a product or service avoid unintended greenwashing and practice truly green marketing?
How can companies avoid greenwashing in their marketing?
While it might be tempting to embellish when advertising, marketers better serve both their companies and customers when they verify aggressively, follow reliable science and advice, and stick to the (scientific) facts.
Greenwashing (and other forms of wordplay and spin) might provide a quick marketing win by conning customers – intentional or otherwise – but the business benefits are usually temporary. Even if they don’t get publicly shamed, a viral campaign and negative “buzz” about a company may be even more damaging. Trust isn’t usually a visible thing (ask any politician).
These are some main ways to avoid greenwashing. The examples come from a range of industries and aren’t just about the environment. The marketing principles are the same.
Supply chain oversight
To honestly and accurately market a product, marketers should understand all phases of production A vertical supply chain provides an in-depth, almost birds-eye view of a company’s production line.
With this oversight, problems can be spotted as they arise, rather than later when damage is done.
Clarity is key
Consumers today are bombarded with products that make a variety of claims with a litany of details. Instead of forcing customers to go looking for proof of sustainability, marketers should make their product’s position clear.
Accredited and easily seen labels, logos, and certifications go a long way to influencing a customer’s trust in a product. Clarity is often far more powerful than persuasion tactics. It’s true, authentic brand communication.
Health food brand RXBAR is as clear as can be. They put all their ingredients on the front of their wrappers. The protein bars might simply say, “3 Egg Whites, 6 Almonds, 4 Cashews…” And they’re really good! In our opinion, much tastier than the supplement and preservative-packed “high protein!!!” bars lining the shelves. The brand’s identity and promise are just that – clarity. It seems to be working. It seems it’s a health-food brand that really is healthy. Imagine that.
Transparency inspires trust
A Sprout Social survey of 1,000 U.S. consumers found 73% were willing to pay more for products guaranteeing total transparency.
Making relevant information available to any interested party fosters a sense of trust. Marketers should display data to back up claims of sustainability, so there’s no doubt surrounding any product on the market.
Software powerhouse Mailchimp lets users send out newsletters and other mass mailings. This means the company handles a ton of personal information. That’s a huge burden, but the company’s also keenly aware that it must be transparent about its policies, as it can both lose customers and be subject to lawsuits.
Mailchimp’s annual Transparency Report details its guiding principles for handling personal information, what requests for information it has received, and how it has responded. The average user may just be grateful to see this, and it’s enough to keep them loyal. Investors, regulatory agencies, and greater society, however, demand this.
Effort trumps perfection
Nobody’s perfect (us included; apologies for using the “t” word in the above headline). And customers are far more interested in brands that acknowledge the need to do better over blanket statements of perfection.
To best relate to consumers, marketers should understand consumer expectations and tell the story of their eco-focused journey rather than the destination.
Software company Intuit lays out tangible climate action goals for 2030. The company uses its credibility as a platform, committing to helping 1 million small businesses cut their emissions in half by 2030. Cool(er, we hope). They also lay it out in a relatively humble way. Props for that.
Avoid ambiguous tradeoffs
Don’t make claims that imply an overall stamp of sustainability when it isn’t true. Many brands are guilty of this marketing sin.
For example, marketing a product as eco-friendly because of its recycled cardboard packaging won’t hold much weight if unrecyclable Styrofoam is also used.
Windex, for example, marketed its Windex Vinegar products as having a “non-toxic formula.” A May 2020 class-action lawsuit disagreed, saying the products actually contained potentially toxic ingredients.
Play by the rules
With the ASA and similar bodies keeping a watchful eye on companies and their marketing strategies, greenwashing tactics are increasingly exposed, especially in advanced economies.
Marketers should overlook the quick but temporary wins that greenwashing might achieve. Instead, play the longer game to reap the long-term benefits of customer loyalty and word of mouth.
Get the message straight to be a truly green company
Two big challenges that both scientific and non-native-English-speaking companies face are
- Being convincingly green to a global audience
- Making the brand messaging convincing in English
These may actually be the same thing. First, you have to actually be a green company. You have to actually have a net-positive benefit on the Earth.
Do you? If not, why?
If your company does not want to do good, why does your company exist?
That existential question is something surprisingly few companies take time to reflect on. They’re too busy “hustling” and trying to get short-term wins.
It’s a corporate culture thing. It’s a life thing. And it can take time to fix, and brutal honesty.
As for #2, that’s easier with companies like Scize. We hone your message for global audiences. We only work with companies and organizations that we believe are doing good for the world. We get to know you and your brand, and we really hope we’ll be able to help you show off your assets to the world and be a brilliantly green company.
Do you want a free opinion on how the world sees your brand?
Do you want help in cultivating a more positive image?
Let’s figure this out – get in touch.