Why and how marketing tied to environmental activism results in ‘greenwashing’

Here are some pitfalls to avoid when highlighting your commitment to the environment this Earth Day.

Corporate sustainability efforts have become a year-round discussion, peaking around Earth Day as companies eagerly volunteer details on how they are environmental stewards. And while being environmentally conscious is table stakes for consumer consideration (according to Nielsen’s Global Corporate Sustainability Report 66% of consumers would spend more on a product if it comes from a sustainable brand, 73% among millennials) before waving the sustainability banner it is crucial to carefully weigh the risks vs. the reward.

Being recognized as an environmental crusader comes with a tremendous amount of accountability. When companies set public goals and then fail to maintain their promises, inflate impact or make uninformed declarations, they open themselves up to claims of “greenwashing.”

Here a few considerations to ensure you’re seen as a good citizen and changemaker, rather than just another company hopping on the eco-bandwagon.

1. It takes a village.

The real brand heroes are those creating meaningful change by linking arms with competitors to solve challenges, share best practices and elevate their respective industries. They’re having honest, open discussions about shortcomings, then collaborating on solutions and inviting the public along for the journey.

A beautiful example is the recent “Beyond the Bag” initiative driven by Target, Walmart and CVS. These retail giants united to fund a program inviting entrepreneurs and inventors to pitch new ideas to replace the 100 billion plastic bags still used in the United States every year, promising $15 million in investments. On a smaller scale, yet equally as notable, when professional haircare brand KEVIN.MURPHY mastered how to create beauty packaging from 100% ocean waste plastics, they volunteered to mentor the rest of the industry on how to accomplish this complicated and expensive environmental goal. To the consumer, these efforts feel authentic and accountable.

If you’re helping spur change at a macro level, though the story might not center on your brand, broadcasting these efforts appears less self-congratulatory and can create a deeper connection with your target audience, as it shows you are truly invested in creating a sustainable future.

2. Celebrate cautiously.

Going green is not an easy feat. It requires commitment, ingenuity and can be costly. As brands achieve major environmental milestones, they certainly deserve applause for staying the course. However, before sharing the exciting moment with external audiences, take a moment to assess the messaging.

Green innovation and conservation efforts can fall flat when other business practices are falling short or even contributing to environmental degradation. Consider acknowledging how much further there is to go, share how you’ll get there and set realistic goals for the organization. Even Patagonia, who received the United Nation’s “Champions of the Earth” award, concedes the difficulties behind the “struggle to become a responsible company.”

And there is always room to go further. Sustainable fashion brand Reformation has been carbon neutral since 2015, but despite achieving this goal, it kept working, declaring its desire to become “climate positive,” an announcement widely praised by their cult following.

3. Find teachable moments.

Before committing to or unveiling green processes and initiatives, it might be beneficial to align with a sustainability focused nonprofit or independent expert. In addition to offering valuable insight to ensure maximum impact, bringing in an outside expert adds credibility to your mission and can mitigate greenwashing accusations.

For example, the beauty industry is notorious for packaging waste. To demonstrate accountability, beauty retailer Ulta created the Conscious Beauty Advisory Council made up of experts at the forefront of clean beauty, product development and packaging sustainability. Together, they will drive forward the retailer’s sustainability initiative, ensuring Ulta follows through on its pledge to ensure 50% of all packaging sold will be made from recycled or bio-sourced materials, or will be recyclable or refillable by 2025.

4. Do the right thing.

An organization still needs to be profitable, while simultaneously doing good. As you evaluate how or even if you move forward with an environmentally-friendly undertaking, the No. 1 consideration must be whether it is a smart business decision.

For example, changing an entire business supply chain is an extraordinary expense, and if it negatively affects the consumer’s experience, it can cost you even more. A business must evaluate if a proposed change is a wise investment. Costly mistakes will make your efforts unsustainable, bringing down any hopes of having a lasting environmental impact.

Becoming a sustainably minded company is a noble cause. It can give purpose to an organization’s employees and is increasingly more important to consumers. But ahead of celebrating your efforts in the public eye, it’s critical to be self-reflective and approach communication and marketing strategies thoughtfully.

As you build your environmental impact narrative, weigh the impact, address the future, admit what you don’t know, and be human. No one’s perfect, but at least you’re trying.

Mia West is vice president of publicity at Havas Formula.

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