How to avoid greenwashing in your communications

February 22, 2022

I'm excited to share this latest guest blog about all things greenwashing. As many of you will be aware, the Green Claims Code came into effect in Jan 2022. So, understandably, people have questions. I caught up with the wonderful Heather from Small Footprint Agency who has kindly pulled together this explanation of what Greenwashing is and how to stay on the right side of the Green Claims Code. Over to you, Heather...

The term Greenwashing has been around for a few decades now. But, with the steep rise in climate consciousness and people’s desire to ‘buy better’, companies have spotted a sales opportunity in rebranding themselves as ‘eco-friendly', even when they are far from it. 

Couple this with the introduction of the Green Claims Code in the UK and other similar legislation elsewhere in Europe, and you’ll see that ‘Greenwashing’ is fast becoming the buzzword ‘du jour’.

What Is Greenwashing?

Put simply, greenwashing is giving customers the false impression (deliberately or not) that your product or service is more environmentally sound than it is. It can be communicated through words but also using imagery.

Greenwash marketing can be found everywhere: on products, packaging, company websites and in digital and print advertising.

What does the Green Claims Code say?

The Green Clims Code is designed to stop brands from greenwashing in order to help customers make informed purchasing decisions.

In a nutshell, the code says:

  • Companies must tell the truth and be accurate in their claims
  • Communication must be clear and unambiguous 
  • Companies must not hide important information
  • Comparisons must be fair and meaningful
  • Communications must take the full lifecycle of the product or service into account
  • Claims must be substantiated

If you’re a marketer without a background in sustainability, this can look like a pretty scary list. Let’s break it down and talk about 8 strategies you can use to ensure you don’t fall into the trap of greenwashing:

Be specific in your claims and vocabulary

Alpro ran into trouble when it claimed that its oat milk was “Good for the planet”. This is an incredibly broad (and bold) claim. After all, the oats needed to be planted, grown, harvested, processed, packaged and shipped. A more accurate claim (but one that would admittedly be much harder to market) would have been “Less bad for the planet than cow’s milk”.

Here are some common terms to avoid:  ‘green’, ‘sustainable’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘low-impact’, ‘earth-first’, ‘ethical’. Even the word ‘compostable’, can be misleading if an industrial composter is required. And don’t get me started on the word ‘natural’, which is nearly always used when only certain elements of the product actually are. ‘Recyclable’ is another one to be wary of because every country (and sometimes even local authorities) have different recycling facilities that are accessible to the public.

Instead be specific by talking about particular elements of the product by communicating the measurable benefits of particular elements of your product such as:

  • packaging suitable for home composting
  • 95% organic ingredients
  • bottle made from 100% recycled plastic

Be transparent and honest

Any claims you make about your product or service should be verifiable by the consumer. Your first job is to check you have the relevant information. If you do and the information is too long-winded to include on the packaging or ad, redirect people to a page on your website with a link or QR code.

Transparency is also important when communicating your company’s path to becoming more sustainable. No path is without its bumps and diversions. Share your challenges as well as your triumphs for ultimate transparency. For example, tell your audience that you’ve switched your website hosting to servers powered by renewables, but be honest if it’s taking longer than you’d hoped to move to a clean electricity provider for your shop or office, or to change your company fleet to electric or hybrid.

Explain your claim in layman’s terms without jargon

You might know these terms inside out but sustainability jargon and abbreviations can trip up shoppers. So, avoid using terms like GHG, net zero, closed loop, LCA (life cycle assessment), net positive, WEEE (waste electrical & electronic equipment) etc. If you do use these terms, be sure to explain what they mean. 

A good way to explain water or energy savings to the public is to represent them in terms of something tangible. For example, ‘our organic cotton hoodie saves 125 gallons of water compared to a standard cotton hoodie. That’s 3 full bathtubs of water!’ Without the comparison the amount of water saved is a bit meaningless. Add context for ease of comprehension.

Make fair and meaningful comparisons

To comply with the GCC, your aim is to present your potential customer with the information they need to make an informed decision. Comparisons can be a useful way to do this. If your product uses less water, less plastic, emits less carbon etc than the market average then you’re free to make this claim provided you have done your homework and have the data to back it up.

Consider the full lifecycle of your product or service in your communications

Some companies conveniently forget about the impact of shipping their products or the impact of the product when it reaches end-of-life. Remember that this plays into how you communicate your product’s environmental claims. You couldn’t say that your company has reduced carbon emissions associated with the product by 25% if transportation hasn’t been accounted for. 

The lesson here? Verify that what your company is telling you is true before you communicate, and look for any missing information.

Use labels wisely

Adding a label to your product or service can be a useful way for customers to quickly identify your eco-credentials. Here’s a great list of eco-labels. Labels such as Fairtrade, Certified Organic, Rainforest Alliance and B Corp are known fairly broadly. However, beware! There are upwards of 450 different eco-labels worldwide and any number of fakes that will take your money in return for a certification.

So what to do? Consider your product and your audience. Which label makes sense for your product? Will your audience understand what it means? And do your due diligence. Ensure you have the right to use that label and the evidence to prove it.

Consider your imagery and use of colour

Take care when using imagery associated with nature (leaves, water, unspoilt views of natural wonders). It is one way to interest eco-conscious consumers, but if it gives a false impression of your product, you have fallen into the greenwashing trap. Even using the colour green can be risky. Coca-Cola tried this by slapping a green label on their new lower sugar cola and calling it ‘Coca-Cola Life’, promoting it as healthier and more natural when in reality it was still a sugary drink in a plastic bottle.

Test, test, test!

If you’re not sure whether your communications are clear enough or have the necessary evidence to back them up then test them before you release them. Send your newsletter, packaging, ad copy etc to friends, family and colleagues and get them to tell you what they’ve understood from what they’ve read and seen. You’ll soon know if your comms need a tweak!

Article by Heather Davies, Small Footprint Agency

Heather at Small Footprint Agency specialises in communicating sustainability and elevating brands that put people and planet first without greenwashing. Heather can provide:

  • Advice on communicating your company’s sustainability credentials
  • Sustainability comms training for your marketing team
  • Project based marketing support

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