How to avoid greenwashing on the path to sustainability
Sustainability currently tops many agendas, whether political, humanitarian or corporate. It was recently announced that the UK is halfway to achieving its net zero targets by 2050, with greenhouse emissions having decreased by 51% in 2020. While maintaining this as the world opens up may be challenging, the ongoing investment in renewable energy has generated tangible progress. Low-carbon fuel sources powered 80% of the National Grid on Easter Monday, breaking previous records.
On the business front, big brands and household names, including major supermarkets, are strengthening their corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. Sainsbury’s, for example, has set out to halve its plastic packaging usage by 2025 and reach net zero by 2040. Last month, the supermarket took over six tonnes of single use plastic out of circulation by removing plastic straws from its own-brand drinks cartons. In the entertainment industry, Netflix has detailed its multi-step plan to achieve net-zero emissions. Concentrating on its production and commercial operations, the firm is making a number of changes such as using LED lighting and removing diesel generators on sets.
With the theme for Earth Day 2021 being ‘Restore Our Earth’, there is growing pressure from the Government, campaigners and consumers alike to be environmentally responsible. Many organisations and brands are keen to show their commitment, but this has unfortunately led to the rise of greenwashing. As businesses define their sustainability policies, some are misdirecting consumer attention – either benignly or intentionally – away from the environmental issues that truly matter.
What is greenwashing?
Many brands are aware that four in five (80%) consumers want to purchase from green businesses. In their haste to give buyers what they want, some companies dedicate more resources to making ‘green’ claims instead of delivering real sustainability. This is the basic principle of greenwashing.
Companies sometimes mislead consumers, concentrating on one aspect of change without exploring the full picture. For instance, a brand that switches its packaging to bioplastics may focus on the manufacturing stage of its products, marketing its materials as sustainable because they don’t rely on crude oil. Experts have expressed concerns about how disposable these alternative materials are, however, as many bioplastics end up in landfill and don’t biodegrade fully.
When companies fail to take this into account, then market themselves as eco-friendly, they fall foul of greenwashing. Sometimes this is accidental, stemming from a lack of knowledge, but it can also be a deliberate attempt to build a false reputation. Environmental experts and clued-up consumers are quick to call this out when they see it, but conversations on greenwashing ultimately distract from the issues that deserve attention.
Businesses must respond to more enlightened consumers
In a digital-first world, customers who care about the environmental impact of the products and services they pay for can easily investigate brands and organisations. They won’t hesitate to search for evidence of sustainable efforts, policies on animal testing, and Modern Slavery Statements to learn if businesses’ values align with their own.
As a result, it is critical for responsible companies to be clear when communicating their sustainable credentials and initiatives. One of the biggest signs of greenwashing is making claims not grounded in science, as this indicates a lack of knowledge around environmental impacts. Ensuring information is backed by demonstrable research and supported by green industry bodies is necessary for a company to prove its value to consumers. Even if organisations are early on in their journey, they can still clarify their sustainable goals and timelines – a progressive mindset will be vital for proving how green a business is moving forward.
Sustainability requires a comprehensive approach
One way businesses can avoid greenwashing is to adopt Life Cycle Thinking (LCT), which involves looking into the environmental, social and economic consequences of a product throughout its life cycle. From a product’s raw materials to its disposal, organisations need to understand how its manufacturing, distribution and usage affect green targets. To do this effectively, companies must thoroughly research environmentalist and consumer expectations, then conduct an in-depth evaluation of how all their operations align with them.
Furthermore, businesses should ensure their stakeholders are on board with both green plans of action and how these initiatives are marketed to customers. Consistently gathering feedback from senior leadership, suppliers, and NGOs will guarantee companies are progressing in the right direction. The path to sustainability is a long one, but targets don’t need to be achieved overnight – in fact, companies should view their journeys to be greener as ongoing. The initial step is where businesses hold themselves accountable for their environmental impact and determine what areas they can address first.
Greenwashing is a pervasive issue across all verticals, but the pressure to achieve true sustainability will continue to rise. Instead of small-scale adjustments that risk falling short of expectations or being miscommunicated, companies can leverage new business approaches to drive long-term change. By doing so, they will be able to craft a genuine reputation around their sustainable journey, as well as heighten the value of their offering for both their customers and their industries.