Avoid “Greenwashing” by Making Sustainable Change

Greenwashing. The term was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986 to refer to misleading marketing or advertising around sustainability, and it has gained traction in recent years as public awareness grows over environmental issues.

Marketing around sustainability has been popular across industries, for decades, and for good reason: consumers care about the environment. And they feel the urgency to care for it now more than ever. A recent study commissioned by Mastercard revealed that, “since the start of the pandemic, there has been a marked increase in consumer passion about the environment. 85% of people across the globe expressed that they were willing to take personal action to combat environmental and sustainability issues in 2021.”

How can your company address sustainability without “greenwashing”?

Depending on your industry, this kind of authenticity can be difficult to achieve. As we’ve seen, brands can lose by taking a stand in a way that doesn’t match with the existing perceptions consumers have about them. For many brands, it may seem safer to stay quiet on the issue of sustainability than to draw attention to what your company isn’t doing.

But ignoring sustainability is dangerous, and it’s not just environmentalists saying so. Swiss bank UBS warned its clients that, if fast fashion fails to address its consumers’ environmental concerns, their product could go the same way as full-calorie soda: into a 20-year plunge.

Big, global changes are difficult and not always cost effective. What’s a company to do? The good news is, there are a lot of changes your company can make to address sustainability.

1. Find out what your customers and employees care about most

Do your customers care about sustainability? If so, is there one aspect of your product or service that they care about the most? If you haven’t conducted research around this issue, now is a good time to start. Consumers are looking to develop long-term relationships with brands who share their values. You can use tools like Material’s Implicit Identity Mapping (IIM)® to identify how much your consumers value sustainability. If your research reveals that sustainability ranks as an important value for your current or prospective users, you must look at significant ways to improve.

Your current and prospective employees are also looking to align themselves with your company’s values. If you support your employees in being environmental advocates for the office and remote at home, you can build a sense of community and knowledge sharing that can lead to meaningful internal changes. Developing an eco-conscious culture attracts and retains talent, raises morale, and helps your employees cultivate a sense of purpose.

2. Conduct an internal analysis

To understand what’s possible at your organization, it may be worth doing an internal analysis of your company’s operations. The research could reveal gaps in the nuts-and-bolts aspects of your business, such as in manufacturing and supply chain, and identify potential savings on energy costs and supplies. Additionally, it can give your company insight as to where they fit in the existing landscape.

If you don’t have the internal resources to conduct this kind of analysis, independent consultants can help you develop metrics, frameworks, and a realistic timeline for measuring your company’s progress. Some organizations even offer certifications, which can help you build credibility and trust.

Conducting a thorough internal analysis is a simple, low-risk way to signal that you are actively looking for ways to address sustainability. It also provides an opportunity for you to gauge consumer sentiment and generate some goodwill.

3. Innovate for your industry

For product-based industries, industrial design and packaging is a huge area of opportunity to innovate and refine. The products we produce, the amount we produce, and way we produce have a tremendous impact on our planet and its resources. Exploring more environmental alternatives in your packaging, experimenting with dimensions, and considering life-cycle are ways to introduce sustainability to your brand.

Leather made from mushrooms, packaging made from plant fiber and seaweed – the possibilities are endless and aren’t reserved for eco brands. Guacamole Airplane, a small San Francisco based studio who has helped companies like Whole Foods Market and AllBirds, has a supplier guide full of impressive planet-friendly package options. By incorporating sustainable materials into your design, you are sending customers a message that addressing the issue of environmental impact is a part of your mission, and that through supporting your brand, they are living out their values.

For other industries, innovation can be targeted towards programs, partnerships, and beyond. Linking with smaller scale models to pilot ideas and learn from can help mainstream brands follow suit with confidence (and less risk). Starbucks recently introduced a reusable cup program that offers incentive for returning your cup. The program takes on the issue of waste reduction, something the brand has been called out on out by nature of their popularity with coffee lovers. New Fintech partnerships have given users access to tools that assess the carbon impact of their purchases and offer counterbalances on the fly. Programs like these allow consumers to feel like they’re making a difference while they’re going about their day.

4. Be transparent about what you can’t achieve (right now)

Bringing sustainability into a company’s operations requires concerted ongoing commitment. If you understand certain aspects of your product aren’t sustainable (yet), it’s better to be transparent than to hide it or make misleading claims. While consumer consciousness around environmental impact continues to grow, purchasing decisions still tend to be guided by factors like price, brand, and perceived quality. Businesses will have to get creative in prioritizing sustainability in partnership with these values.

One company that has successfully melded these values with transparency is Jada Pinkett Smith’s Hey Humans gender-neutral personal care line. The product line is packaged in 99% plastic free material, with every product carrying a price tag under $6, and widely available in all Targets. The messaging even goes so far as to point out what elements of the packaging are NOT sustainable, a gesture that communicates Hey Humans is willing to guard accountability for both company and consumer alike.

Formulating this kind of top-down, multifaceted approach to sustainable marketing is not easy. Companies who are willing to tackle the challenge in a meaningful way will grow stronger relationships with the sustainability minded consumer at the other end.

The public is becoming more knowledgeable on sustainability. So, you need to acclimate.

The public’s understanding of what it means to be “sustainable” is evolving as discoveries and innovations continue to be made. While there are certainly consumers who don’t value sustainability, concerns about climate change have risen significantly in many countries since 2013 and only seem to be increasing.  Brands that don’t take action are missing a critical opportunity to earn loyalty from an influential and powerful customer segment—and to appeal to a growing global sentiment.