Cutting through the green noise

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Humanity’s “Code Red”

This week’s UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was a wake-up call. The report shows that our climate is rapidly degenerating at an unprecedented, and potentially irreversible, rate. The UN Chief described it as a “code red for humanity”.

So what can be done? Clearly, action must be taken by political leaders – but it’s also a stark reminder to brands and businesses that green policies and actions are crucial to the future of our planet.

And consumers are making their voices heard on the subject. There’s a rising demand for sustainable products and greater transparency, especially from the next generation with purchasing power. Nine in 10 members of Gen Z believe companies must act to help with environmental issues and are the most willing to pay extra for sustainable products.

Honesty is the best policy

As we touched upon in our previous tone of voice blog, consumers can see through inauthentic comms from a mile away.

Being transparent in communications about sustainability and ethical practices is more important than ever for brands wanting to improve their own credentials and retain their customer base.

But unfortunately, many companies are accused of talking the talk without walking the walk – a practice known as ‘greenwashing’.

This week on the first ever cover of Vogue Scandinavia, Greta Thunberg accused the fashion industry of greenwashing and called for it to be overhauled to reduce its impact on climate change. It’s a claim that isn’t without evidence.

A look behind the green curtain

Recently, the Changing Markets Foundation’s ‘Synthetics Anonymous’ report (June 2021) analysed the sustainability of 46 European fashion brands. The report found that 59% of products with labels such as “recycled”, “eco”, “low-impact” or “sustainable” failed to meet Competition and Markets Authority’s guidelines.

This report has helped to expose the negative industry trend of ‘plastic fashion’: the use of environmentally unfriendly plastic fabrics in clothes.

It’s also revealed the greenwashed marketing used to promote these products. The language in the communications for these ‘sustainable’ items were ambiguous, omitted important information, or weren’t backed by evidence.  

The report claimed that H&M was the most misleading, with 96% of its claims flouting guidelines. The brand marketed its 2019 Conscious Collection as a sustainable collection, using organic cotton and recycled polyester. However, the CMF found that 61% of the Conscious Collection garments contained polyester, with more synthetic materials than its main collection.

It’s not the only accusation of greenwashing that H&M has faced – last year, Hasan Minhaj’s The Patriot Act also called the brand out for using vague terms like “ecologically grown cotton” to market clothing without substantiating these claims.

This greenwashing criticism came at the same time as the brand’s announcement of its ambitions for a sustainable fashion future, including the use of purely recycled materials in packaging by 2025 and only using sustainably sourced materials in clothing by 2030.

It also coincided with the launch of its campaign “Role Models x H&M’ where half of the proceeds of a new range of ‘more sustainable’ children’s T-shirts would go to UNICEF. But these positive initiatives are becoming lost in a fog of accusations of false green claims that shrouds the brand in controversy.

Earlier this year, as a move to show it’s improving its eco practices amidst the greenwashing claims, H&M appointed a sustainability ambassador. A chance to get scientific expertise and eco experts onboard to truly make climate impact, the brand appointed actress Maisie Williams for the role instead. Understandably, this brought fresh accusations of greenwashing criticism.

What can businesses learn from this to avoid similar accusations?

  • Use clear language – avoid fluffy key words with no clear meaning e.g., ‘eco-friendly’, ‘organic’ or “natural’
  • Be transparent about green action and back it up with evidence – don’t confuse consumers by not providing proof
  • Make pledges and provide timelines of tangible actions
  • Appoint sustainability ambassadors with genuine green credentials

It’s not just the fashion industry that’s coming under fire for greenwashing. FMCG companies have also been accused of similar practices. Budweiser recently partnered with Professor Green for tips on how people can tackle climate change. His name may be ‘Green’, but his only recycled material is in his lyrics.  

If a company’s practices, products, services, or even the wider supplier chain, is not 100% green, it should own it and say what it’s doing about it. It’s vital to be transparent in communications about where the gaps in the business model lie, or where certain aspects of the business may even be harming the environment with current practices.

The life cycle of most products is long, so it’s essential to consider the total impact on the environment from the start of ideation and manufacturing to the end result of a product in a consumer’s hands.

Right now, it’s a challenge for a business to be completely, 100% green. Going green is a long-term process of change. Brands must accept this and not be afraid of communicating their shortcomings. So long as they explain how they’re genuinely actioning and improving their business models to be more green, consumers will appreciate the honesty.

Communicate authentically, own your flaws

Outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia is a good example of a brand getting its communications right. It’s transparent about its carbon footprint and its use of chemicals. The brand positions its sustainability goals as a “struggle to become a responsible company”. It owns up to the fact it’s not 100% green. After all, most companies aren’t.

By being forthcoming on its actions and environmental responsibilities, Patagonia endears itself to consumers who value honesty in the brands they choose to become loyal to.

Similarly, HP is well known for being transparent with consumers about its steps to improve its green credentials. The company recently reached its goal of 100% zero-deforestation for HP-branded paper two years ahead of schedule. It has also outlined comprehensive climate goals and actions to reduce its environmental impact across its whole suite of products, services and operations.

The temptation for brands to greenwash is understandable – it appeals to the ever-increasing environmentally conscious consumer. However, like any mouse in a mousetrap would testify, temptation can come with potentially fatal pitfalls.

If marketeers employ vague and attention-grabbing buzzwords such as “climate neutral”, “carbon negative” and “offsetting”, and these vague claims are not backed by evidence and rationale, the damage to their brand could be severe.

Inauthenticity not only risks damaging consumer trust and brand loyalty – it can also affect brand reputation and have broader business implications with formal enforcement. The ASA and CMA are cracking down on verifications of green claims in accordance with the CAP code and exposing ill-practices.

But, most importantly, greenwashing delays the necessary action that businesses need to take to address, and hopefully reverse, the climate crisis.

  • Sophie Paglierani,
    Senior Account Executive