When Coca-Cola was announced as a sponsor of COP27 – the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference – it caused outrage. Why? Because Coca-Cola is also the biggest plastic polluter.
Its biggest impact comes from its business model: manufacturing and selling bottled beverages. That said, the company’s efforts to improve this model by closing the loop on packaging production, such as via recycling and lower-impact materials, are encouraged. Yet these changes are slow. It seems that in this case, sponsoring a leading sustainability conference is more of a diversion from Coca-Cola’s struggle to improve its impact. A fast-track way to polish the company’s image as a “green hero”, which should keep CSR budgets well-spent and shareholders happy.
Experts think that is at the least misleading, because consumers may infer that Coca Cola is already a sustainable company, and thus it would discourage the company from making real changes.
Greenwashing refers to making false, misleading, overstated, or unsubstantiated claims about an organization’s environmental impact. It goes without saying that such claims, once disproved, will shake society’s trust in a business, causing it to lose clients, investors, and partners. And yet, it happens at a huge scale.
The Recursive spoke to five communication experts from varied fields such as non-profit sector, tech startups, media, and PR, to understand what is causing greenwashing and how to avoid it.
Read on and get insights from:
- Simona Stiliyanova, Co-founder and Managing Partner of Osnova, Founder of Zero Waste Sofia, and ESG and Marketing Director at BlackPeak Capital;
- Ioana Marin, Sustainability Editor & Connector at Community Index Magazine, the only bilingual magazine in Romania dedicated to sustainability & CSR;
- Teodora Ghenciu, journalist and Founder of sustainability platform eEco;
- Lavinia Iancu, PR/oject Manager at Sustenobil PR/oduction, a marketing and PR agency for creative industries and sustainability projects;
- Roxana Buzetelu, founder of Micile Bucurii, an NGO with a growing portfolio of educational projects for citizens and organizations, Mastermind Groups Facilitator at Leaders for Climate Action, and Romania Referent at Climate Fresk – a serious game about climate change.
Why is greenwashing such a challenge these days?
There are various factors that have encouraged greenwashing, however, one seems to trump them all: missing or minimum legal and reputational consequences. At least so far.
We are currently riding a wave of increasing regulation of green marketing and eco-advertising around the world, according to legal firms.
In the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) published its Green Claims Code (Code) and accompanying guidance in September 2021, to help businesses comply with their responsibilities under existing consumer protection. Other countries, like China, don’t have a specialized law for greenwashing, but have adapted other laws such as advertising and consumer protection to regulate the communication of environmental aspects.
Meanwhile, in the EU, the European Commission has recently proposed to strengthen the EU consumer rules against untrustworthy or false environmental claims, and ban greenwashing and practices misleading consumers about the durability of a product.
Yet these laws are not always enforced, and some countries lack any regulation of greenwashing whatsoever, making it easy for companies to cross the line.
The company’s motivation deems a closer look. What happens when companies are faced with escalating pressure to make improvements to their environmental footprints, as fast as possible, while still holding to the one performance metric that underlies business activity since the dawn of time – financial profits? They face a conundrum.
In such cases, “companies may try to hide their polluting behaviors behind “green products” in order to keep their customers and maintain the same growth metric: profit,” Roxana Buzetelu comments.
“Companies have always tried to capitalize on emerging domains. It happens the same with sustainability and greenwashing,” Lavinia Iancu adds.
Too often, Teodora Ghenciu argues, greenwashing is a conscious decision by company leaders. “Unfortunately, in most cases, I don’t think it is about traps that communication professionals fall into, rather they are well-crafted strategies.”
While figuring out how to change their business models, if at all, companies end up seduced by the convenience of greenwashing, as opposed to the hard work that analyzing one’s impact and rethinking processes or entire business models implies.
“Rather than diving deeper into what sustainability really means and understanding the concept, many companies and professionals fall into the trap of using some buzzwords only for the sake of using them. It’s much harder to do what you preach, to really make an effort and to – literally – take action. The shift from façade to essence still has a long way to go,” Ioana Marin explains, adding:
“Perhaps companies that are seduced by greenwashing just want to be in the trending section, as they forget or maybe do not realize that sustainability is not just a glamorous word – it’s a process, it takes time and determination, it doesn’t happen overnight”.
That said, greenwashing may not always be intentional. “Even if communication teams want to be transparent, sometimes greenwashing can happen unintentionally. The pressure for a change from all stakeholders is getting really high, as it should be – businesses need to act. Sometimes it’s possible that company management wants to switch course and to position the brand as a ‘green’ hero so they don’t lose market share. But a good and well prepared communicator needs to state that change doesn’t happen overnight and to flag the risks of false claims,” Simona Stiliyanova advises:
Along the same lines, Teodora Ghenciu reflects:
“In the context of the climate crisis we are facing, sustainability has become a main subject of interest and it was expected to happen the same with greenwashing, which is good. But I can also understand that for companies and especially for their communicators, this can be a big stress factor. It shouldn’t be.”
Let’s further look at some of the red flags of greenwashing.
What are the common traps of greenwashing?
We have already hinted at one of the biggest red flags that a company is either greenwashing or about to fall into the trap: doing the bare minimum, if anything at all, to improve its environmental impact, while positioning itself as a green hero.
This happens because, fundamentally, becoming more sustainable from an environmental standpoint is often at odds with the established capitalist business model, whose only goal is to maximize profits.
“The issue is that sustainability implies refusing, reducing, reusing, rethinking, repairing, repurposing, recycling, and reselling, whereas capitalist business models are based on mass production and mass consumption,” Lavinia Iancu shares. She continues:
“We need to tackle the cause, not the effect. Finding new monetization schemes and business models with sustainability principles is vital for tomorrow’s society. So, sticking to the same old way of doing business inevitably leads to greenwashing, because the criteria are different. We see donations for various causes, yet problems persist – the CO2 carbon emissions from manufacturing, for instance.”
When environmental sustainability is not an integral part of the company’s strategy, communication teams have little substance to work with. Real monitoring and reporting are likely missing. And communication professionals are probably not receiving the necessary training around why sustainability matters and how it translates for their companies. In turn, this leads to ineffective language and overclaims:
“It’s not just a matter of greenwashing, but about ineffective, boring, used and abused clichés that, unfortunately, are constantly exploited by professionals all around the world when communicating their sustainability efforts. The “Words that Work – effective language in sustainability communication” report, published by Radley Yeldar agency, states that 98% of the brands fall prey to at least one cliché,” Ioana Marin shares, adding:
“Some of the most common clichés are: “we care”, “a better tomorrow”, “in this together”, or “people and the planet.”
To avoid falling into the greenwashing trap, one also needs to understand what customers want. “Know your audience! Are you simply giving them what they want to hear? Or do you actually know what they need? How do they want to receive that information?,” Ioana Marin adds.
Besides overclaiming efforts, Teodora Ghenciu sees two further red flags of greenwashing: shifting blame to people instead of admitting the organization’s responsibilities, and shifting the public’s attention from a company’s environmental and social impact.
How can you improve your sustainability communications?
“Nowadays clients, investor and all other stakeholders are becoming well informed and very sensitive to greenwashing. They also know that transformation cannot happen overnight. It’s a journey,” Simona Stiliyanova advises.
“Being honest” and “being transparent” are the two most frequent guidelines to avoid greenwashing mentioned by experts. Roxana Buzetelu summarizes it as “being real”. Companies need to summon the courage to become accountable for their journeys, with transparent communication about progress and challenges:
“Messages shouldn’t be framed to fool customers, but to offer a clear transparency of where you are in your actions. Frame the story around why the product/service you are marketing is just a small step in the journey you are taking towards a climate friendly company/industry. If you are a big polluter, contributing to climate change, you should be aware of that in your communication – people already know, they don’t wanna be fooled and sold false solutions.”
Ioana Marin further explains why companies sometimes avoid full honesty and transparency: “The fear of criticism and, probably, the perfectionism trap determine businesses to quiet their unique tone of voice. In this way, they forget that transparency really is the best policy. Stick to honesty!”
Another key guideline for sustainability communication professionals is to use science-based data. For instance, Simona Stiliyanova advises companies to avoid the random use of “eco-friendly” labels on products – there’s even a proposed ban by the European Commission against these claims. Instead, companies should get in touch with a verified certifying organization, which can help them with a clear process and science-based data.
To create the foundation for a sound sustainability communications strategy, the whole company must be engaged and made accountable for parts of the process, experts think.
“The sustainability of a business is an end-to-end process: from internal procedures to the whole ecosystem in which the company operates. It is a long-term endeavor, a red thread that must go along all the departments and managerial levels. However, it is often a matter of a single person or department within the company. It is a utopia we all crave, starting with our efforts. Reporting sustainability is a sincere effort: assess the impact of the whole business and set measurable objectives. Reward and incentivize conformity and punish non-conformity,” Lavinia Iancu shares.
“Work closely with your company’s senior management and ESG team to make sure that everyone is on the same page and you have set clear measurable time-bound science-based ESG goals. There are many organizations such as SBTI and CDP, which have developed very comprehensive methodologies,” Simona Stiliyanova ads.
So, to sum up, here is a list of principles to follow to avoid greenwashing and thus become more effective in positioning your company’s sustainability efforts:
- Learn what your customers really want;
- Integrate sustainability into the company’s strategy;
- Work together with the management team;
- Be honest and transparent, and thus accountable for your efforts – and remaining challenges;
- Act before communicating;
- Don’t promise what you cannot deliver;
- Avoid overclaiming, buzzwords, and clichés;
- Make sure your claims are backed by scientific evidence.