Since the mid-2000s, many consumers have shown increased interest in environmental sustainability. In response, organizations have turned to sustainable products and marketing.
Sustainability initiatives can help organizations stand out in the competitive marketplace and simultaneously demonstrate corporate social responsibility (CSR). However, brands sometimes exaggerate their sustainability efforts or knowingly use marketing to exploit consumers' interest in the environment. Brands might create deceptive marketing campaigns, which can make them appear sustainable when they have done little to reduce their environmental footprint. This is known as greenwashing, and it can damage brands' reputations.
To launch a successful sustainable marketing campaign, marketers must know how to avoid greenwashing.
What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing is a form of deceptive marketing that makes an organization's products seem more environmentally sustainable -- or "green" -- than they are. The term greenwashing comes from the word whitewashing, which implies a cover-up of negative information. Organizations that greenwash might make false claims about their products, services or practices to appear more sustainable.
This approach can damage a brand's reputation because it undermines consumer trust. To avoid greenwashing, organizations must make honest efforts to reduce their environmental footprint and accurately portray their operations and corporate initiatives in marketing materials.
How does greenwashing harm organizations?
Consumers increasingly care about environmental issues and CSR, so companies might feel pressure to prove their commitment to sustainability. However, deception or misdirection through greenwashing can lead to a wave of criticism from customers and other stakeholders who might feel that the organization cheated or betrayed them. This backlash can quickly spread on social media and damage an organization's reputation.
Greenwashing also puts organizations at risk for legal repercussions. False claims about environmental responsibility can deceive customers and, therefore, violate consumer protection laws in many countries around the world. Organizations that make false or exaggerated claims can face large fines and other penalties from regulators, as well as lawsuits from consumers that brands misled. The financial costs associated with legal action can devastate organizations -- especially those already struggling financially due to economic downturns or other factors.
When economic downturns hit, organizations that face greenwashing accusations might struggle to reestablish customer trust and recoup losses from fines and decreased business. To recover from these accusations, organizations can invest in positive PR, change how they obtain resources and market themselves, and make large charitable donations.
5 tips to avoid greenwashing
Greenwashing can lead to public backlash and legal action, both of which can damage brand reputation and customer loyalty. As such, organizations that wish to remain profitable and earn public respect must take a proactive stance against this type of deceptive marketing. Marketing teams can use the following tips to avoid greenwashing:
- Support marketing claims with credible evidence. False or unsubstantiated marketing claims about an organization's environmental practices can result in significant fines and reputational damage for organizations that make them. For example, an organization that describes itself as carbon neutral -- meaning it completely negated its carbon footprint with offsets -- should collect and utilize data points and third-party research to support this claim. This evidence can legally protect the organization if any marketing claims come into question.
- Consider the overall environmental footprint. Organizations with large carbon footprints that advertise minor sustainability efforts risk accusations of greenwashing. For instance, an oil company that powers its offices with renewable energy shouldn't market itself as eco-friendly simply because it made one small aspect of its operations more sustainable.
Instead, organizations must consider the overall effect their activities have on the environment. In marketing materials, marketing teams can use data points to demonstrate how the products, sourcing, manufacturing and distribution has offset or reduced the company's carbon footprint.
- Use sustainability certifications and standards. Sustainability certifications, such as those from LEED, B Corp and Fair Trade USA, offer an independent third-party assessment of an organization's operations. These certifications can let customers know an organization has taken steps to minimize its environmental footprint. These steps could include sustainable construction, waste management and supplier sourcing.
- Audit supply chains. Organizations should investigate their suppliers' sustainability practices before they build relationships with them. An organization can do everything on its end correctly, but if its suppliers engage in unsustainable practices, people might still accuse that organization of false advertising. The audit process can help businesses maintain transparency throughout product lifecycles and reduce potential instances of greenwashing from external parties.
- Monitor customer perception. Customers' perceptions of brands can change over time. Organizations can use ongoing customer surveys and interactions to continuously gauge how customers feel about their sustainable messaging and products.
To avoid greenwashing, organizations should make honest efforts to minimize their overall environmental footprint and back up marketing claims with data. These practices can help companies build customer trust and establish themselves as environmental leaders in their respective industries.