Header Image (Desktop)
Header Image (Tablet & Mobile)
4 Ways to Avoid Greenwashing (2023 Marketing Guidelines)
by Tarang Mohnot
The modern consumer is more eco-conscious than ever. According to a report by London-based data agency Kantar, almost 60% of Asian consumers are willing to invest more time and money in companies that have social and environmental purposes.
However, another survey by Bain and Company revealed that some of the major challenges to shopping sustainably for Asia-Pacific consumers are insufficient information and distrust of brand claims. Brands that offer consumers a false impression of their practices, AKA greenwashing, can greatly damage their brand reputation. What’s worse, this isn’t always a deliberate action—more so among impact-driven businesses.
So how can organizations in Southeast Asia avoid the pitfalls of greenwashing and stay true to their word? Partnering with an experienced sustainable marketing agency is one way to be sure, but there are some basic steps you can take to prevent the worst offenses.
What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing is modeled on the term “whitewashing” and involves making false or vague claims about a product or service’s environmental impact. Owing to consumers’ increasing concern for the planet, this has become a popular marketing tactic for businesses.
For instance, Singapore Grand Prix (SGP) was accused of greenwashing when its organizer claimed that it was on track to minimize its carbon footprint. Critics argued that SGP was ignoring the colossal carbon cost of the race itself, while also not providing any data on its actual carbon footprint.
Greenwashing is extremely unethical, and in addition to misleading consumers, it undermines real efforts contributing to sustainable ways of living. In our experience, most cases of greenwashing could have been prevented in one of these four ways:
Source: Ivan Marc / Shutterstock.com
1. Avoid the usage of vague or irrelevant language and imagery
Language and visuals are powerful. However, they can create clarity or magnify ambiguity depending on their usage.
Marketing buzzwords such as “clean,” “compostable,” “organic,” etc. have been drawing recent criticism from watchdog groups, and for good reason. Without clear, prominent, and specific social or environmental benefits, these words are vague at best.
Source: HollyHarry / Shutterstock.com
This takes us back to the controversial case of H&M’s Conscious Collection. A clothing line that was marketed by H&M as being made from more “sustainable” materials, was in fact found to contain a higher share of damaging synthetic materials than its main line.
Similarly, using an image of a pristine forest or clear blue waters to symbolize sustainability isn’t entirely wrong. In fact, we’ve done it on our Sustainability Page too. But notice the way we’ve supported the images with concrete details that highlight actual commitments and goals.
2. Research as much as possible
In order to be specific, you’ll need access to correct and timely data. Before kicking off that new marketing campaign, we highly recommend spending time with manufacturers and suppliers to learn exactly how your products are made, how services are provided, and how other stakeholders contribute to your supply chain. This will help you to get the bigger picture of your organization’s sustainability and avoid making any misleading claims based on incomplete information.
Devise and establish acceptable accounting protocols. Does your brand make a claim about the gallons of water saved by its innovative production process? It may then be a good idea to know how these numbers are calculated and to share the same with your customers.
Once you’re armed with reliable data, proving your business’s sustainability credentials shouldn’t be hard.
“Substantiating green claims and being intentional, transparent, and clear on how they were made is extremely important. Brands can also embrace credible sustainability labels that provide transparency and offer clear communications on what the labels indicate and support.”
Sustainability Consultant, Unravel Carbon
3. Demonstrate with proof
Source: Shevtsova Yuliya / Shutterstock.com
One of the “seven sins of greenwashing” cited by Nina Goodrich, director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, is the sin of no proof.
One could easily claim that “repurposing is better than recycling.” And perhaps that’s true. But the mere belief isn’t enough. Is there evidence? What is the belief based on? Substantiate. This becomes all the more important when you’re talking about concepts that are still in debate.
It’s also best to avoid making blanket statements. Saying “veganism is always the better choice” may court controversy because not all plant-based foodstuffs have a small environmental footprint.
Proof is about credibility, so it may be a good idea for your organization to embrace credible third-party certifications and seals of approval. Lastly, follow up on your pledges—does your company plan on going carbon neutral by a certain year? Track and share its progress over time with consumers.
Pro tip: As opposed to stock images, original visual assets are incredibly powerful when it comes to offering proof.
Mae Teeta staff member rinsing cloth with organic indigo dye. Source: Mae Teeta Facebook Page
A great example in this regard is Mae Teeta—a Thai clothing brand. Take a look at the way they demonstrate their process of harvesting materials sustainably. It’s real. It’s raw. It’s believable.
4. Let go of perfectionism; be humble
Once you’ve got proof of how you’re sustainable, you will also have proof of how you’re not, and that’s okay. Consumers don’t expect a business to hit all the bases, or to be perfect. However, what does matter to them is honesty. And honest communication and self-accountability become distant dreams when businesses try to be perfect.
A 2021 survey of 1,000 customers revealed that over 80% consider trust to be a major deciding factor while making purchases.
Paramount to building trust is acknowledging shortcomings and owning up to goof-ups. A great example of this is Amsterdam-based eyewear brand Ace & Tate sharing a bold blog post addressing its bad moves around sustainability. They won even more hearts by highlighting how they are rectifying their mistakes.
Greenwashing exploits our collective concern for the planet and our communities, and it undermines our will to do something about it. The Harris Poll states that almost 60% of the global corporations surveyed in 2022 have admitted to overstating their sustainability efforts at some point.
That being said, going green gives businesses a huge competitive advantage. So it is still worth being sustainable and attempting to communicate that to your customers. By being specific, doing the research, getting proof, showing humility, and investing in high standards, our organizations can do more than survive the greenwashing minefield.