Sustainable brands versus greenwashing: how can companies do better?

Sustainable brands versus greenwashing: how can companies do better?

If you’ve scrolled through your social media, streamed online, or walked down the street today you may have been inundated with images of products that claim to be ‘eco-friendly’, ‘green’ and as of lately ‘sustainable’. While sustainability as a concept is ideal, the definition gets muddied when marketers use the term to muster up feelings of the Good Samaritan in consumers. The messaging is confusing and false advertising is not only harmful to our planet, but is an abuse of public trust. So, how do we know which brands are sustainable? What makes them sustainable? And how can companies do their part 

The first step is to fully understand that the definition of sustainability goes beyond resources or what one often associates with the term eco-friendly. As a light guide, you might check out the UN’s Sustainability Development Model, pictured above. Sustainable impact is dependent on several variables, but by no means must adhere to all 17 goals. However, companies who are more conscious focus on sections like 7, 11, 13, 14 and 15. In order to unravel the mysteries of less-than-honest marketing, you should look at the products themselves. There is a distinct difference between companies who are sustainably aware and those who are inherently sustainable because they’ve put a framework in place.  

So, which companies talk the talk but don’t walk the walk? To clearly define the difference, I’ll walk you through some brands who didn’t make the cut. Take for example, KLM. Their ‘Fly Responsibly’ campaign nudged customers to take it upon themselves to reduce their carbon footprint by taking the train, but there was no real action taken by the company, nor did they take responsibility for their negative impact. Their website reads, “Fly Responsibly is KLM’s commitment to taking a leading role in creating a more sustainable future for aviation. With the introduction of Fly Responsibly, we’re making the world aware of our shared responsibility. We can only succeed if we work together, so join us today for a more sustainable tomorrow”. Note how they’ve used sustainable without understanding that sustainability requires a laundry list of prerequisites, none of which they were willing to comply with themselves.  

There are other companies who have come a little closer to the target but who have used sustainability as a marketing tool rather than creating a framework for a sustainable initiative. Case in point, Lacoste’s campaign in collaboration with the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) which used ten endangered animal species in the place of its iconic crocodile logo. Although the campaign raised awareness for a good cause, it created a false façade of sustainability to the public. If we look at the facts, databases like Rank A Brand give companies and manufacturers a sustainability score based on their conscious efforts, and Lacoste has earned what they call the ‘E level’, “by communicating nothing concrete about policies for the environment, carbon emissions or labor conditions in low-wages countries.” Additionally, they’ve ranked even lower on the Corporate Information Transparency Index (CITI) which evaluates environmental management and water pollution in Chinese supply chains. Brands like KLM and Lacoste participated in what activists might call “greenwashing”, a type of marketing strategy which misleads consumers into believing a company is sustainable or environmentally sound when they are not.  

To understand the difference between greenwashing and brands who are sustainable, there needs to be transparency between the consumer and the marketer. Brands who aren’t using sustainability as a buzzword are posting their initiatives on their websites, they’re outlining how they’re reducing their carbon footprint, and lastly, they are clearly stating how they’re working towards a better and more sustainable tomorrow. Take for example, Shole, a plastics alternative company whose mission is to help eliminate single-use plastics. They’ve increased visibility of their impact by highlighting their partnership with 1% for the Planet, a global organisation that connects dollars and doers to accelerate smart environmental giving whilst doing fun things on Social Media like the #idontdoplastic campaign. The consumer trusts that they are sustainable because they’ve clearly outlined their efforts on their website. In addition to this they are working towards a fully sustainable supply chain, and are as transparent as possible when communicating about it. There is no question left as to what makes them sustainable.  

If you’d like to understand how you can make your company sustainable whilst avoiding “greenwashing”, start at the very core of your business. Examine your company values and decide which sustainable goals are important to you. From there you can do little things like creating a greener office space or on a company-wide scale, create change by making the packaging for your products sustainable. There are always more ways than one to make an impact, but there is never a good time to have to regain the trust of a customer.