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Marketing Environmental Sustainability in The Age of Cynicism

Updated: Aug 8, 2023

Three Ways to Avoid the Pitfalls of Greenwashing

Today’s eco-conscious consumer is actively seeking brands that prioritize environmental sustainability in their production, processes, and purpose. There is a proven link between sustainability claims and consumer spending, with many saying they’re willing to pay more for it, too. But Greenwashing, the deceptive act of exaggerating or misrepresenting a company's environmental initiatives, can lead to an enhanced level of skepticism and reduced customer loyalty.

Consider the introduction of electric cars as a solution to one of the most prominent and familiar causes of carbon emissions worldwide. While their reliance on mining rare-earth minerals makes them imperfect, they are still an objectively better alternative that will reduce net carbon emissions overall. But despite their benefits, the lack of clarity, data, and holistic consideration around the marketing of their approach left many people feeling misled and skeptical of this imperfect trade-off. This sentiment is indicative of how people feel about sustainability claims in general.

If your brand is looking to market their sustainability practices, avoid the pitfalls of Greenwashing and break through a tough layer of consumer skepticism, consider these three factors:

Be Clear.

For a customer to resonate with your claims, they must first understand them. 73%of consumers say they need more information to be assured they’re making sustainable choices. Comparing the carbon footprint of competing products becomes a guessing game that gets old quickly. Marketers should avoid vague or ambiguous statements that could mislead consumers. Instead, communicate specific details about your environmental commitments, such as reducing carbon emissions, minimizing waste, or sourcing materials responsibly.

Oatly is one of the few brands that explicitly lists the carbon footprint of their product on the label. It showcases an honesty that garners trust and loyalty. It’s possible that this may become a requirement for product labels, just as calories became required on menus.

Back it Up.

Even if a company is doing the work to operate with the environment in mind, it’s not easy to convince people. Mere claims of being "green" or "eco-friendly" are insufficient in today's discerning marketplace. More than half of consumers “sometimes” or “never” believe companies’ environmental claims. Marketers need to back their claims with solid evidence to avoid greenwashing accusations. Provide verifiable data, certifications, or third-party audits to substantiate your environmental claims.

Ecover, a cleaning products brand, shows customers everything they’d need to know about their carbon footprint and sustainability intentions. They include data points, even the ones that aren’t perfect, and list their objectives to improve. It’s a great example of transparent operations that we believe will become table stakes for businesses in the future.

Take a 360 Approach.

Greenwashing can occur when marketers focus solely on one aspect of their business while neglecting other areas that may have a significant environmental impact. Sadly, most companies' net-zero emission plans are largely meaningless because they don't fully account for the emissions of their operations. To remedy this, marketers must re-evaluate all touchpoints of their operations. This includes the supply chain, from sourcing raw materials to manufacturing, packaging, and distribution. It also accounts for workplace initiatives such as energy-efficient operations, waste reduction and recycling programs, and ethical labour regulations. Only once everything has been reevaluated can you identify areas where you can make meaningful improvements to reduce your ecological footprint.

Shakelee was the first company in the world to be certified climate neutral. They do everything in their power to offset CO2 emissions and ensure the environmental impact is a solid net zero, from how they source ingredients to run the company.

As marketers, we have a responsibility to promote sustainable practices genuinely. Greenwashing not only misleads consumers but also damages a brand's reputation, and the reputation of other brands making similar—and more legitimate--claims. By putting forth clear claims, providing tangible evidence, and considering all elements of business operations, the pitfalls of Greenwashing can be avoided, and trust can be rebuilt.

About the Author

Daniel works at the cross-section of data and culture in an everlasting effort to make sense of the world around us. He’s particularly keen on seeking out modern signals and how they ripple into the future. Outside of work, you’ll find him in the woodshop or enjoying a movie at the local cinema.

This post is part 4 of a 5-part series, bringing to life our STEEP framework for 2023. The framework presents macro trends that span Socio-Demographic, Technology, Environment, Economy, and Politics to account for each letter in our STEEP acronym. Within this series, we will explore how each one of these macro trends trickle down into our daily lives and provide the modern marketer with cues to help them navigate this evolving reality. Read our last blog on marketing to the complicated consumer.

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