A lot of companies struggle with marketing themselves as a green organisation. There are a number of reasons for this, but most often it comes down to a poor understanding of what an organisation is trying to say in a marketing campaign and how they say it.
The Total Environment Centre (TEC) defines greenwash as: “Key communications or actions by an organisation that creates a reputation of being more responsible or sustainable than they actually are. This can be applied to a product, service, company or sector.”
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The main issue to consider before commencing any green marketing communications is motive. Why are we doing this? To enhance our reputation? To differentiate our product?
The correct answer should be: To provide a net environmental benefit and, in doing so, commercial and other organisational benefits will follow.
Once you’ve worked out why you want to say something you need to work out how to say it, ensuring your message is honest, substantiated and relevant.
The two most common mistakes are:
1. Not clearly differentiating between products and practices which can lead to one aspect negatively affecting claims made in regard to the other.
2. Making statements or claims that are not backed up or leaving out crucial information pertaining to the product and/or the organisation.
First, to point one. There are two primary aspects of sustainability that need to be treated, understood and marketed very differently. To this end, what your organisation produces will set limits to how sustainable your product can be.
For most organisations there is generally more potential to change practices than there is product.
However, most green claims focus primarily on product, which is often where problems arise.
Green marketing will always be problematic if an organisation does not aim for more sustainable practices and products.
When making product claims you need to be sure that your practices will not jeopardise the claims relating to the product.
Sustainability claims relating to organisational practices are misleading if you are selling a high impact product and have not significantly reduced or committed to reducing the impact arising from it.
In regard to point two, misleading claims are the most common examples of greenwash and are often not made intentionally by the organisation making them.
These sorts of claims are incredibly damaging. They create consumer confusion, disinterest and scepticism for green products, claims and sustainability in general.
They damage the industry and the reputation of the organisation making these claims. Most importantly they undermine the genuine efforts of companies and individuals trying to be sustainable.
There are many product claims on the market today that are not entirely honest. Some examples are:
- CFC free aerosols. CFC’s have been globally banned for over 20 years.
- 99% fat free lollies (jelly beans, jubes, etc). Lollies such as these traditionally have no fat which makes this claim misleading.
- Using green or natural images and product names on packaging for a product that is no different in terms of environmental impacts to any competitor’s products.
- Promoting the organisation as green based on one product whilst also producing other products with a high environmental impact.
When making an environmental claim for a product it is important for the marketing department/agency to communicate with the technical or production department about claims being made.
Overall, claims need to be honest and able to be substantiated. TEC has produced a report titled The End of Greenwash – How to unlock the consumer potential for sustainability and the extensive Green Cred Checklist, which goes into great detail about how to ensure your messages are delivered accurately.