At the start of 2022, Google surveyed C-suite executives and revealed a significant admission of guilt: 58% of execs think their companies are guilty of greenwashing. At the same time, almost a third (29%) confessed that their organisations treat sustainability as merely a PR stunt – a standout case of this was Tariq Fancy, former head of sustainable investing at BlackRock, the world’s largest asset management firm with $10 trillion AUM, who claimed, “Wall Street is greenwashing the financial world, making sustainable investing merely PR.”
Sustainability isn’t a PR stunt, and greenwashing will no longer, well… wash.
Organisations who are overstating their sustainability credentials are putting their businesses at risk as regulatory bodies are becoming increasingly litigious. For example, 2022 saw Innocent Drinks’ advertisements pulled because it told consumers to “get fixing up the planet” by buying its smoothies. Even though Innocent had committed to recycling 70% of its bottles by 2030, that wasn’t enough justify that its product would have a net positive environmental impact.
But how can you avoid greenwashing and putting yourself at risk?
Luckily, two landmark reports were released at the end of 2022, and we’ve distilled the key takeaways to guide you on how to avoid greenwashing. Here are the five essential ways to avoid greenwashing according to the ASA’s Climate change and the Environment report and the UN’s Integrity Matters report:
If you want to start talking about your sustainability credentials, you need to first make a pledge and set clear targets for what you’re aiming to achieve. The targets should be short-, medium-, and long-term, and the pledge should be announced publicly. This means you should be setting targets that say, “By 2025, we will have reduced emissions by 15%, and then by 2030, we will have reduced by a further 15%”. And you should pledge that in line with an established and robust third-party methodology that’s consistent with limiting warming to 1.5C.
Your public announcements should be well-crafted, strike the right tone, and be supported by objective evidence.
Once you’ve set targets and made a pledge, you need to outline a plan of how you will achieve them. The plan should be detailed and cover everything that will ensure you reach your targets, ranging from your corporate structure to your supply chain.
As with your targets, to ensure credibility, your plan should be in line with recognised third-party frameworks, and it should be updated regularly as you get closer to those targets. By planning in line with a third-party framework, you can show you method is supported by evidence, and it provides a clear way of testing your claims to see if they stand up to scrutiny.
Your targets and actions are part of a global plan to reach Net Zero, and people are aware of this. So much so that they don’t take well to messaging that positions companies as being ‘climate heroes’, and readily perceive this to be greenwashing. Instead, you should strike a note of humility when crafting content about your achievements or targets, as that creates a positive sentiment with people.
Whatever your claims, you’ve got to be transparent and support them with objective evidence. This means you must disclose your targets and plans whether or not you’re achieving them. This could be in the form of annual ESG reporting, or other communications crafted specifically for this purpose. But what’s key is the information is there and it’s easily accessible – it’s no good hiding things behind paywalls or making it gated, everyone needs to access it.
There are two broad methods of reaching your Net Zero targets: offsetting emissions and reducing them directly. If you’re only offsetting, then you’re running the risk of greenwashing. You need to do what you can to reduce your direct emissions, and your method should be in your publicly available plan.
Overall, your messaging, PR, and content should ensure people can see what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and should avoid painting you as a cure-all remedy for the climate crisis. If people can see that, then you’re not at risk of greenwashing. If you’re opaque, sloganeering, and positioning yourself as everyone’s saviour, then you’re highly at risk of greenwashing.
Everything you put out needs to be supported by objective evidence, and you should be testing whether or not your claims actually stand up to scrutiny. If they barely pass the smell test, you should abandon them immediately. Even if you’re moving in the right direction, you need to think carefully about whether your data really supports your messages – look at Innocent Drinks: it was doing the right thing, but its messaging wasn’t truly supported by the data.
For 20+ years we’ve been helping clients avoid greenwashing in their messaging, content, and PR. Get in touch to see how we can help you navigate this terrain.