How to Avoid Greenwashing

How to Effectively Communicate Your Sustainability Story

The quick version

  1. Be careful with your wording, and avoid buzzwords and vague language. 
  2. Be fully transparent with your audience, especially when your sustainability goals fall short.
  3. Be genuine in your approach to sustainability, create a comprehensive sustainability strategy, and invest in third-party auditing to ensure that your approaches are truly effective. 

Getting accused of greenwashing is scary. But, it’s also avoidable.

Including your sustainability story in your marketing strategy isn’t just a good idea; it’s essential for business. According to the World Economic Forum, consumers wish to support companies that align with their values, specifying that 63% of global consumers think that it’s more important for companies to fight climate change than it is for them to pay the proper tax. Wall Street Journal discovered similar expectations, finding that around 64% of American consumers place recycling/reusing, plastic waste, and air pollution at the top of their concerns.

If your company isn’t showcasing its commitment to sustainability, it could be losing customers and clients to companies that are. However, your sustainability claims cannot be empty. Modern customers are savvy, and they have access to endless resources allowing them to see through false claims. Companies that choose to highlight their sustainability in their marketing must do so carefully while developing a sustainability strategy that yields real results.

The good news is, if your sustainability strategy is genuine, well-researched, and audited by a third party, you don’t have too much to worry about. You only need to ensure that your framing aligns with your ideal audience. Let’s take a closer look at what all of this means.

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is when an organization makes unsubstantiated claims about its environmental impact or focuses more on its sustainability marketing than its sustainability tactics. While this is usually done intentionally, it can sometimes be done by accident through partial or lazy environmental approaches. 

Why is it damaging?

As mentioned above, consumers want to support companies that are working toward greater sustainability goals. If it’s discovered that a company is deliberately misleading its customers in order to gain sales, it can be massively damaging for a brand. Harvard Business Review found that, on average, companies that are seen to be greenwashing experience a 1.34% drop in their ACSI customer satisfaction score. This drop is massive as companies compete over tiny margins within this framework.

Rectifying damage from greenwashing claims can result in tremendous marketing and PR costs, and it can even result in fines. Long story short, you do not want to be accused of greenwashing. 

Unfortunately, this disproportionately affects small businesses. Large corporations are allowed to make grave errors (even intentional ones) with little repercussions. Because they have the resources to be able to swallow fines and marketing campaigns after such a claim, as well as established brand trust, greenwashing accusations typically result in no more than a slight inconvenience. On the other hand, for small or mid-size companies, a small misstep could mean the end of their business. This is why they must be extra careful with their eco-friendly claims and positioning. 

This does not mean companies should avoid showcasing their sustainability in their marketing strategies. It simply means they must set aside a budget to create a careful, transparent sustainability marketing strategy alongside a comprehensive sustainability approach.

How to avoid greenwashing

Avoiding greenwashing in your business is a matter of steering clear of buzzwords, practicing transparency, and committing to a genuine, measurable sustainability strategy. 

1. Be careful with your wording

It’s true that some greenwashing claims are false. Keyboard warriors exist, and sometimes an accusation comes forth due to clumsy wording from the company. To avoid this, keep away from buzzwords or other jargon, and avoid vague wording.

The terms “sustainable” and “eco-friendly” mean nothing. There are no global sustainability standards, which means that these terms have way too much room for interpretation. What eco-friendly means to you might mean something completely different to someone else. Instead, tell your customers exactly what you are doing to minimize your company’s environmental footprint in clear and direct language.

Finally, don’t make claims that are technically true but misleading. For example, don’t use the term “all-natural” to insinuate that something is healthy. It might be all-natural, but even natural ingredients can be bad for you. 

2. Practice transparency

Greenwashing accusations are typically made after a company either fails to live up to its claims or makes false ones. Avoid this by practicing full transparency, including your shortcomings. Most customers don’t expect you to be perfect, and the lack of global sustainability standards means that developing an effective sustainability strategy that also works for your business can be difficult.

It’s not uncommon for businesses to pursue sustainability strategies that turn out to be less sustainable than they originally thought. This is okay. What’s not okay is when the business tries to hide its misstep from the customers or, even worse, sticks to its guns while continuing to lie about its sustainability.

Showcasing your full sustainability strategy opens your business up for critique. While this is scary, it’s actually a good thing. Informed customers and even your competitors may point out shortcomings, but that gives you an opportunity to address them. Just be real. Customers love that

Transparency in action

I recently came across a TikTok that exemplifies transparency surrounding sustainability perfectly. You can view the video here.

In the video, the business owner addresses a comment critiquing her use of plastic. The very first thing she does is thank the commenter for keeping her and the industry accountable. 

Then, instead of making excuses, she explains her sustainability journey and how she is experimenting with more sustainable packaging choices as well as the challenges that she’s facing. Ultimately, she struggles with the same thing that many other companies struggle with, too: trying to find eco-friendly packaging alternatives that can protect her products during transit. Although she admits she’s not quite there, she asks her audience to bear with her as she explores packaging options. 

When you read the comments, her followers are very receptive to her approach, even offering suggestions. This goes to show how effective transparency can be, even when faced with a criticizing comment like this business owner was.

3. Create a genuine and measurable sustainability strategy

Greenwashing accusations arise from questionable sustainability claims. So, really, the best way to avoid greenwashing is to make sure that your sustainability strategies are genuine. 

Take some time to create and pursue a sustainability strategy. Don’t just offer to plant a tree for every sale made. (Although, that is one great way to improve your company’s impact alongside other approaches.) Deeply analyze your supply chains to ensure ethical and sustainable practices. Get rid of plastic packaging. Trace your environmental footprint and strategize ways to make it as small as possible.

Remember, people make entire careers out of creating sustainability strategies for businesses. If you don’t have the resources to invest in a sustainability consultant, then take the time to fully cultivate your sustainability strategy. This might mean that you can’t showcase your company’s sustainability for a long time, and that’s okay. Practice transparency, and let your customers know what you’re working on and how you’re exploring ways to minimize your environmental footprint in the future.

4. Live up to your promises (or address why you didn’t)

When making promises to your customers, you must live up to them. If you’re working on a sustainability strategy, provide a timeline. You can’t just promise that you will be more sustainable in the future and call it a day. Your customers need to know when and how they can expect the change. 

Along those lines, you must take accountability if you are unable to reach the targets that you originally set forth. Tell your customers why you didn’t make the target, and create a new target that they can look toward. In fact, according to a study by the Nottingham School of Economics, 45% of customers withdrew complaints after being issued a simple apology. This shows that saying sorry means a lot.

But, apologies can’t be empty. Along with your remorse, you must rectify your reputation by setting reasonable aims. While your customers may forgive you for one missed goal, habitually failing to reach sustainability targets will result in greenwashing accusations. Find that sweet spot where targets are large enough to make an impact but small enough to be achievable. 

How to create a comprehensive sustainability strategy for your business

So, how exactly does one begin to create a sustainable business plan? There are a few key things that you need to do to ensure that your sustainability goals are comprehensive and achievable. 

  1. Define what sustainability means to your company, as set forth by credible entities. In lieu of global sustainability standards, eco-friendliness is a blurry target. You need to determine what exactly that means to your company. Choose a framework that’s set forth by a credible entity, like the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, to guide you. 
  2. Create measurable and trackable targets. It’s not enough to pledge to use less plastic packaging in your business. You need quantitative data to show where your company’s environmental footprint is now and where you want it to be in the future. From there, you can create steps to reach your goals.
  3. Use a third-party environmental reporting organization to track and analyze your footprint. This will allow you to see where you stand and where you can improve. Continue to track your environmental footprint, always working toward minimal impact.
  4. Strive to do more. The journey toward sustainability is without end. We can always do better. Once you achieve your initial sustainability goals, brainstorm ways that you can do more. Look beyond your company to ensure sustainable practices among your suppliers. Invest in programs that minimize environmental impact within your industry. Lowering your environmental impact is something that you must continue to work toward as long as you are in business.

Greenwashing accusations are scary, but they shouldn’t prevent your company from showcasing its sustainability to its customers. Take the time to cultivate a comprehensive sustainability strategy, and practice care in your marketing, and there’s no reason why your company should be leveled with such claims.

Looking to grow your sustainable marketing strategy through your web content? Contact me for a discovery call, and we can discuss how I can help you achieve your sustainability content goals.

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