Sustainable Marketing vs. Greenwashing 

Many businesses are making commendable strides towards becoming more environmentally friendly. By doing so, they have not only contributed to the conservation of Earth’s resources but have also improved their profits. Implementing measures such as reducing plastic packaging and sourcing sustainable ingredients have earned many brands the respect and loyalty of today’s discerning youth – a challenging market to sway. 

On the other hand, some brands are trying to attract business by claiming to be green – but not backing up those claims with action. This dishonest practice is known as greenwashing.  

Greenwashing occurs in businesses of small and large scales, misleading consumers into thinking they are making sustainable choices when in fact, they are not. In the spirit of Earth Day on 22/04, this article reviews the differences between genuine sustainable marketing and greenwashing and gives some tips to help you avoid being falsely accused of being a greenwasher.  

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Examples of How Sustainable Marketing Has Helped Businesses Increase Profits

There are many examples of how sustainable marketing has brought about improved business results. Coca-Cola’s financial performance improved after they dedicated themselves to being more sustainable and they have set more goals, including using recycled materials and reducing the carbon emissions of their fleets.  

To be specific, they intend to reduce their carbon footprint by as much as 25% by 2025 and have made progress toward this goal by sourcing renewable energy and implementing more energy-efficient technologies. As a result, they have saved more than a billion dollars in energy costs since 2010.  

Another example is Unilever. A report by McKinsey showed that Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, which includes reducing waste and improving energy efficiency, generated savings of  €700 million, ($762 million USD), between the years of 2008 and 2015. The brand also saw an increase in revenue from their Sustainable Living Brands, which grew 30% faster than their other products in 2015.  

Finally, the multinational retailer IKEA has also benefited from making the switch to more sustainable practices. According to a 2020 report released by Statista, IKEA is the most sustainable brand in the world, based on factors such as their use of renewable energy, their strong commitment to reducing waste, and their efforts to promote social responsibility. In addition, a survey from Statista stated that 67% of consumers in the U.S. said they are more likely to purchase products from IKEA because of their sustainability efforts.  

While these and many other brands have remained steadfast in their commitment to eco-friendliness, others are engaging in greenwashing practices. The latter has not gone unnoticed by consumers, highlighting the growing trend of deceptive marketing tactics surrounding sustainability.  

What is Greenwashing?

As mentioned, greenwashing is a marketing practice where a brand will make exaggerated claims about their sustainable efforts in their production or service offerings.   

The primary aim of greenwashing is to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers, especially when they want to target Gen Z. This deceitful and unethical practice typically involves the use of ambiguous language, manipulated statistics or data, and unsubstantiated claims about a company’s commitment to sustainability. 

Greenwashing undermines the honest efforts of companies that are genuinely committed to sustainability, which hinders progress towards a more sustainable future on the whole. 

How is Greenwashing Different from Green Marketing?

To discern the difference between Greenwashing and the trend of green marketing, one must understand that one practice is characterised by transparency and honesty, while the other relies on deception and false claims. The differentiation between the two can be delicate, leading some companies that are genuinely committed to green marketing to be wrongly labelled as greenwashing.  

For instance, a brand may start sustainability-focused campaign, but if it cannot adhere to its sustainability objectives, it may eventually succumb to greenwashing practices, even if it had no initial intent to do so. 

Brands that genuinely engage in green marketing will undertake the following types of activities: 

  • Going paperless 
  • Using eco-friendly cloud service providers 
  • Manufacturing products that can be recycled, or that are made from recycled materials (and that are ethically sourced) 
  • Their products and the production of their items is free of toxins or substances that are detrimental to ecosystems, or any ozone-depleting substances. 
  • Avoiding the use of excessive packaging 
  • Designing their products in a way so they are reusable and repairable instead of disposable.  

Unfortunately, these days, it is very common for brands to take on green marketing labels in their advertising efforts. They may use words like “Organic” “Natural” or “Eco-friendly” to describe their products, but when they are not truly following through on those promises, they are greenwashing.  

Real Examples of Greenwashing

Unfortunately, there are many well-known and respected brands that have fallen into greenwashing.   

One example involves Volkswagen, who came clean and admitted they cheated emissions tests by installing a defect device in some of their vehicles’ software. The software detected when the vehicle was undergoing a test and it would alter performance to reduce emissions levels. This all took place while the brand was marketing their cars’ eco-friendly and low-emissions features; in reality, the engines were releasing as much as 40 times the allowed limit for nitrogen oxide pollutants into the air. 

Another giant in the fossil fuel industry, BP, who attempted to go green by changing their brand name to Beyond Petroleum and putting solar panels on their gas stations came under fire for their greenwashing issues.  

The company even came up with a new slogan stating, “We can’t put all our energy in one barrel.”, accompanied by images of lush green plants, the sun, and wind turbines. While they claimed they were investing billions of dollars into alternative energy, it was never clear what the word “alternative” was implying. 

On further investigation, it was discovered that BP’s alternative energy included natural gas-fired power stations. While natural gas may not be as polluting to the air as oil or coal, it is still a fossil fuel and not considered a green alternative. There are many other cases relating to the use of counterfeit green fuels in various countries, such as those derived from unsustainable palm and soy plantations.  

In 2018, Nestle released a statement implying that they had ambitions for their packaging to be 100% reusable by the year 2025. However, environmental expert groups were quick to recognise that the company had released no timeline to accompany the progress towards their claims, nor had they released any proof of their efforts to help change recyclable packaging.

Greenpeace reacted negatively to the snack food brand, stating the following:  

 “By labeling its products with a green statement, Nestle is trying to paint a positive picture of its plastic packaging, which is fueling the global plastic pollution crisis. This is a textbook example of greenwashing, where a company tries to deceive people into thinking its products are environmentally friendly when they are not. It’s time for Nestle to stop greenwashing and take real action to reduce its plastic footprint.” – Lisa Göldner, Greenpeace Switzerland Campaigner.

How to Avoid Greenwashing

If your brand is unfortunately accused of engaging in greenwashing, it will be difficult for you to regain trust from your customers and other companies within your industry. Therefore, it is crucial that you do what you can to avoid this label in the first place. So, here are some marketing or branding activities you should avoid to this unwanted label. 

Use Clear Wording

Using words such as environmentally friendly, organic, or all-natural is vague and could lead to suspicion among consumers. It is better to use clear and specific language that explain how your company’s products or services truly are eco-friendly.  For instance, using terms such as “recyclable,” “biodegradable,” “carbon-neutral,” or “made with renewable energy” give consumers more concrete information about the sustainable impact of a product or service. 

Provide Evidence

To avoid accusations of greenwashing, it is essential to provide evidence and be transparent about sustainability claims. For instance, when claiming that a product is made with recycled materials, it is important to offer proof of the percentage of recycled content used, where the materials came from, and the recycling process used.  

Similarly, when asserting that a business is carbon-neutral, it is necessary to demonstrate how the carbon footprint was calculated, the steps taken to reduce emissions, and the offsetting activities implemented to achieve carbon neutrality.  

Being transparent about sustainability practices and providing evidence to support claims helps establish credibility, build customer trust, and demonstrate a genuine commitment to sustainability.  

Avoid Making Irrelevant Claims in Advertising

Many times, brands will place emphasis on one small attribute or characteristic for their products or services for going green, yet still keep everything else about their company the same. And that is not truly going green. 

Use Accurate Photographs

To effectively communicate a brand’s commitment to sustainability, accurate and relevant photographs can be used to convey a sense of environmental consciousness. However, it’s important to ensure that the images used accurately represent the product being marketed, rather than simply capitalizing on the popularity of “green” marketing. 

For example, it is better to use images showing employees actively taking part in sustainable practices, using solar panels or packaging their products in recyclable boxes instead of simply displaying photos of green grass or animals out in nature. 

A prime example of a company that effectively uses accurate photographs to communicate their commitment to sustainability is The Body Shop. They use images of responsibly sourced ingredients and environmentally friendly packaging to showcase their values. By doing so, The Body Shop effectively conveys their brand values and attracts consumers who prioritise sustainability.

The Importance of Transparency

Transparency plays a critical role in discerning authentic environmental concern from greenwashing. By fostering transparency, corporations can bridge the gap between genuine and artificial concern for the environment. 

One example of how transparency is involved in corporate social responsibility is demonstrated by the outdoor clothing brand, Patagonia. This brand has been dedicated to being more sustainable for many years. They use recycled materials whenever they can and implement responsible production methods. By doing so, they have gained a loyal customer base and increased their profits. 

But unlike many other brands, Patagonia doesn’t shy away from their use of chemicals. The company describes their sustainability mission as a “struggle to become a more responsible company.”  

Their website states how they cannot pose their brand as a model of a responsible company because they do not do everything that a sustainably responsible company does, nor does anyone else they know. But they admit they understand they have environmental and social responsibilities as a clothing company and they are doing what they can to act upon them.

Many businesses could benefit from using Patagonia as an example to follow when it comes to green marketing. Even if you’re not currently able to do everything you’d like to be doing, consumers will appreciate that you’re doing your best and are aware of the areas in which you need to improve.  

Wrapping Up

Some brands turn to greenwashing to capture the attention of consumers but their false claims always catch up with them in the end. In some cases, a company starts out with honest efforts but unintentionally ends up greenwashing because of carelessness or the inability to meet the high demands they set for themselves. 

Greenwashing is not the way to go if you want to gain more loyal customers, increase your profits, or make changes to your company that will help protect the environment. So, if you cannot reach the same eco-friendly goals as your competitors, but still want to be more sustainable, be honest with your customers and the public about where you’re at currently and how you need to improve.  Your honesty will go a lot further than false promises.

My team and I would like to wish you a Happy Earth Day 2023! And if you need help with your marketing strategy, don’t hesitate to get in contact – we would be delighted to assist. 

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