From tenuous claims about products made from bamboo to supposedly green investment funds that retain significant exposure to fossil fuel companies, “greenwashing” — making misleading environmental claims to entice customers or investors — is pervasive in the corporate world. In fact, half the environmental claims used to advertise products in the EU are misleading or unfounded, according to a leaked report from the European Commission, which is clamping down on the practice.
As consumers and investors embrace sustainability, companies are often keen to shout about their social and environmental credentials. But even well-meaning businesses can find themselves inadvertently making dubious claims — and facing a public backlash or boycott as a consequence. So, how can you convincingly and truthfully convey how serious your company is about its social or environmental responsibility?
To help you navigate this rocky terrain, we spoke with Benjamin Voyer, the Cartier Chaired Professor of Behavioural Science at ESCP, and Annika Bautista, an external curator within the Gen-Z Observatory, a think-tank composed of students and Cartier employees that explores emerging generational and cultural changes.
Our expert duo highlighted the importance of assessing your climate impact and interrogating your green claims thoroughly, while carefully tailoring your communication of any sustainability assertions.
Greenwashing goes beyond the environment: it’s any claim you’re making.Prof. Ben Voyer
Take a holistic approach: sustainability means more than climate
Unfortunately, as Voyer tells us from the start, the risk of a consumer backlash has been amplified by social media, where criticism can spread online like wildfire. “Any perceived attempt to greenwash may go viral. And greenwashing goes beyond the environment: it’s any claim you’re making.” For instance, many brands faced consumer anger over pledging their support for the Black Lives Matter campaign in 2020 — while at the same time having overwhelmingly white leadership. Occasionally referred to as woke washing.
Sustainability now means far more than the environment for the younger Gen Z cohort of consumers, Bautista explains, stressing the importance of a more holistic approach: “The definition of sustainability is changing for them, it’s not just about the environment but also the social and ethical component of your business and your labour practices in particular.”
Despite the inherent risks in speaking out, many companies are still attempting to burnish their sustainability credentials — because their customers are keen to be green, even if many of them feel unsure about the environmental and social language used by companies. And the “say-do gap” is closing, meaning that these customers are more prepared to act on those concerns.
That means eco-friendly messages have become vital to attracting the attention of consumers. “These days most customers expect companies to take reasonable steps to protect the environment and reduce their carbon footprint. We’ve gone far from the days when it was a plus for consumers. It’s now the baseline expectation,” Voyer says.
People are very wary of absolutist statements — for example that a company’s entire contribution to climate change can be offset.Annika Bautista
Build consumer trust with transparency and authenticity
Based on her research with the Gen Z Observatory, Bautista says that two things are critical for brands to get right when communicating with younger consumers in particular: transparency and authenticity. “When brands are not being transparent or authentic, they lose the trust of the consumer. And there are so many alternatives, they will just go to another brand. And they will be more loyal to that brand as it’s more closely aligned with their values.”
With that in mind, she urges bigger companies especially to assess their entire supply chain before they project any messages because this is where the bulk of their carbon emissions will come from — all the steps to get their products into the hands of the customer.
“Consumers would prefer complete transparency and they would rather have the full information instead of discovering later on that the brands they love have these other practices that are not aligned with what they have spoken about before,” Bautista tells us.
Additionally, if these internal reviews reveal any problems, you should come clean voluntarily. “A lot of brands come up with statements only after they have been accused of something bad,” says Bautista. “They need to be more pre-emptive and admit to problems, rather than quietly trying to clean up their act and hoping nobody will notice.”
Accurately measure your social and environmental impact
When it comes to communicating with external audiences about sustainability, Bautista advises companies to choose their language carefully. “The way that brands express themselves is so important. People are very wary of absolutist statements — for example that a company’s entire contribution to climate change can be offset. Businesses need to be more strategic about what they publish, and only claim things they are more certain of.”
This means the accurate measurement of a company’s social and environmental impact — a tall task in itself — is top priority, as is hiring the right experts who can internally review all claims before they’re transmitted to the outside world.
“Consumers are looking for science-based metrics,” Bautista says. “So there is a lot of need to quantify impact, to make things less arbitrary. And so it’s important for companies to have sustainability experts leading on these communication strategies.”
You’ve got to work collaboratively with other organisations and let that shine through in your messages. Otherwise, you’re just tooting your own horn.Annika Bautista
Seek external certification of any green claims
But given that many even earnest-sounding brands are distrusted, Bautista says it can help to get external certification, such as becoming a B Corp, to validate your ESG credentials.
Lastly, she suggests that companies should not publish these claims for selfish reasons, but instead with the intent of sharing best practices and helping other companies to learn from what they do. “You’ve got to work collaboratively with other organisations and let that shine through in your messages. Otherwise, you’re just tooting your own horn.”
Ultimately, the risk of greenwashing seems unlikely to dissipate given the need for companies to improve their ESG credentials moving forward. But they can avoid claims of greenwashing by seeking external certification, measuring their impact accurately, and being transparent and authentic in their communications.
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