What is Greenwashing (and How Can You Avoid It)?

Branding something as eco-friendly, sustainable, or green does not mean that it always is. ‘Greenwashing’ is a trend that many businesses have participated in, whether knowingly or not. But what exactly is it, and how can it be avoided?

The term ‘greenwashing’ was coined in 1986 by Jay Westerveld, an American environmentalist and researcher, after he documented the practices of one beach resort in Samoa.

The resort was promoting its reusable towel service as a way to protect the environment. Meanwhile, it was also expanding further into the local area and having a devastating effect on the local wildlife.

Nowadays, the term has quite a broad meaning but generally refers to when companies and organisations mislead their consumers or audience by making them believe that a product, service they provide, or the organisation itself is environmentally friendly or sustainable when in reality it is not.

A recent analysis of advertising related to the COP26 climate summit found widespread greenwashing by hundreds of businesses on social media platforms.

The term also made headlines earlier this year in August when environmental activist Greta Thunberg called the fashion industry out for partaking in the phenomenon.

‘Fast fashion’ is becoming notorious for its negative environmental impact, with humans consuming a whopping 400% more clothing now than they did 20 years ago.

The food industry has also been a pretty large culprit when it comes to greenwashing, with companies such as Nestlé and Lay’s being accused of carrying out the marketing deception, despite contributing heavily to the global plastic waste problem or being unsustainable in their production process.

Other examples include the automotive industry, like BMW advertising a zero-carbon electric car that was proven to have the option of including a petrol engine, or the hospitality industry, where hotels have eagerly advertised sustainability awards despite them being given for a single slight improvement.

While it may be beneficial in the short term, Greenwashing can have disastrous consequences for your business. So, why do companies do it at all?

Well, with the climate crisis as dire as it is, consumers, especially Millennials and Gen Z, are less likely to buy products or services that do not keep environmental interests in mind.

They’re also likely to spend extra money on those that do, meaning businesses can actually put the prices up and make more money than if the product or service had not been marketed that way. Of course, it can also give companies an edge over their competitors.

However, it’s crucial to note that greenwashing can be done entirely unintentionally. As public consciousness of environmental issues rises, so does the temptation to get something out quickly about what your business is doing and how green you are.

There’s also increasing pressure from the Government for businesses to reduce their environmental impact and start heading towards net-zero emissions. Right now, this is mainly focused on large companies and corporations, although that will change in the future.

An example of this is an Australian company that switched to “biodegradable” plastic, which technically didn’t fully degrade, but instead just breaks down into smaller parts unless it’s processed in a specific digester.

The consumer affairs watchdog in the country actually fined them to stop selling the product as it was misleading.

This could soon be happening in the U.K. too. The new independent expert group, the Green Technical Advisory Group (GTAG), was set up by the Government in June this year.

They were established to advise on standards for green investment and will oversee the Government’s delivery of a “Green Taxonomy” – a common framework setting the bar for investments that can be defined as environmentally sustainable.

The Green Taxonomy will help clamp down specifically on greenwashing and make it easier for investors and consumers to understand how a firm is impacting the environment.

As we’ve seen, greenwashing can severely harm your reputation, diminish customers’ trust in your brand, and leave you vulnerable to upcoming legislation. So, how can you avoid it?

First of all, it’s vital to adopt a holistic approach when it comes to sustainability. When using low environmental impact as a unique selling point for a specific service or product, attention is often drawn to the entirety of the company’s processes and business practices.

If sustainability is not a part of the business’s overall strategy, it can easily lead to backlash from consumers.

Another point to keep in mind is that a lack of information can lead to a lack of trust. The real danger in greenwashing is deceiving your customers and losing their loyalty in the process.

That’s why transparency is key with any successful green marketing. This also means that alongside showcasing your commitments, you should probably register your shortcomings as well.

This might seem scary to do at first, but people are aware of the dishonest world of green marketing campaigns and will appreciate you being upfront and realistic about your commitments.

It’s also important to set concrete action steps with clear deadlines, allowing your audience to keep you accountable while managing their expectations.

This could be anything from including sustainability goals in your website’s Corporate Social Responsibility section to building a social media campaign around your plans. Remember, no matter if the actions are big or small, it is always better than being inactive and dishonest.

Whatever you do, make sure to do your research and, if possible, try to obtain green accreditations to prove that what you’re doing is helping our planet.

At Play it Green, we empower businesses to make real change. Unlike many other tree planting companies that just offset, our 3-step solutions help you lower your footprint and give to a social cause at the same time.

Businesses signed up to Play it Green also have access to our network of sustainability experts, who can provide carbon reporting tools or help you switch to green energy, as well as our Net Zero Framework.

“The time when planting trees was enough has gone. To do so and claim sustainability is simply a lie and pure greenwash. That’s why Play It Green came up with our 3-step solution to climate change. Repair through reforestation, Reduce through tips and education and regive to a good cause.”

“Transparency is also paramount as many businesses will take advantage of companies with smoke and mirrors. That’s why we publish everything, to reduce reputational risk to our partners.”

Richard Dickson, Co-founder, Play it Green

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