What is Greenwashing? And How to Avoid It

Jun 1, 2021

As the public’s awareness of environmental issues increases, so does their spending on companies that promote green policies. A survey of 2,000 UK and German consumers in 2020 found that about two thirds of consumers consider a brand’s promotion of sustainability an important factor when purchasing from them. However, some companies are capitalising on this increased interest by aligning themselves with sustainability, without making any real effort. This is called greenwashing.

Coined by environmentalist Jay Westervelt in 1986, greenwashing was used to describe the hotel industry’s “green” policy of asking guests to save energy and thus “save the environment” by reusing their towels. Notably, hotels made no effort otherwise in saving energy, as their costs remained the same. This policy, Westervelt argued, was merely a guise by the hotels not to reduce environmental impact, but to reduce the cost of laundry. By capitalising on this “green” policy, hotels manipulated guests into increasing their profits whilst appearing to care about the environment. 
More recently, greenwashing can be seen in the “green” PR and marketing strategies of companies which are used to create the false impression that their products or services are environmentally friendly, in order to increase profit. The infamous case of cheating on emissions tests by Volkswagen is a clear example of this. Volkswagen deceived the public into believing that their diesel engines were more environmentally friendly than their petrol counterparts. They did this by manipulating emissions tests, which led to increased sales on this factor alone. The discovery of this deception not only led to a class-action lawsuit against the motoring giant, but a loss of 30,000 jobs for the company as it plummeted 8 places in Brand Finance’s global ranking. 
Greenwashing can not only result in damage to the environment, but also in damage to the reputation of a company. 81 percent of consumers say they need to trust a brand in order to buy from them. And when it comes to sustainability, the accusation of greenwashing is a significant breach of trust. Here are some ways to ensure that your green policies are not a case of greenwashing: 
Be transparent about your commitments. 
Not defining your commitments to sustainability can reduce trust in your brand. However, being transparent about your commitments means a lot more than just saying that you use recycled paper in the office. 
Show your commitment to sustainability by not only outlining what you already do, but what you need to improve. If your commitments to sustainability aren’t yet where you want them to be, be honest and upfront about it, while offering a solution and a clear deadline. It can be daunting to admit shortcomings, however, by being transparent you are building trust with the consumer. Additionally, by tackling them head on and preempting concerns, you manage the expectations of the consumer. 
Substantiate your claims 
It’s one thing to say you are “green”, and another to prove it. Along with being transparent about what you do to reduce your environmental impact, supplying evidence of this reassures consumers that you aren’t being deceptive.   
One great way of backing up vague claims of “greenness” or “sustainability” is by gaining accreditations from third party sources to verify your claims. For example, receiving certification from Investors in the Environment to show exactly what you do to reduce your impact, whether it be recycling initiatives or a net carbon neutral promise.  
There are all kinds of initiatives for different industries and sized companies that can back up your company’s claims of sustainability. These credentials can help environmentally conscious consumers easily identify your brand and trust your claims. 
Think about the big picture 
When it comes to sustainability, it’s important to place your commitments in a wider context.  
McDonald’s “green” initiative to end the use of plastic straws and replace them with paper ones in 2019 was met with widespread accusations of greenwashing. When it turned out that their new paper straws weren't even recyclable, the criticism only intensified. Plastic straws not only account for only 0.025% of plastic pollution in the ocean, but the company made no strides in reducing their environmental impact company-wide.  
A commitment to sustainability needs to be approached from the top down. While small changes are great in taking a step in the right direction, think about how you can make a difference in all aspects of the company. And, if you’re being transparent about changes you’re yet to make, you can avoid accusations of greenwashing. 
LSPR’s course Fundamentals of Public Relations approaches reputation management holistically, and during these crucial times for the environment, it teaches your company how to own your commitments to sustainability while avoiding charges of greenwashing. 

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