The line between green marketing and greenwashing is very fine indeed, regardless of a company’s intentions behind their claims. Any organization, no matter how large or small, can veer off into greenwashing territory if their green marketing is not backed up by verifiable actions and information.
Here are some ways companies can avoid greenwashing in their communication.
- Stay away from jargon and good-sounding words and euphemisms with no clear meaning: Don’t throw around words or terms that are vague and general, without specific information to back them up. Some of the most common ones are: eco-friendly, sustainable, natural, all-natural, conscious, responsible, cruelty-free, recyclable, fair-trade, biodegradable, non-toxic, environmentally-friendly. If you use any of these terms, be sure you explain HOW your company is being sustainable, and back up your claims with exact actions.
- Make your claims concise and easy to understand. Include details such as specific units of measurement (e.g., “70% organic cotton” rather than “made with organic cotton”), certifications from recognized third-party eco-organizations, and verifiable endorsements (don’t use imaginary friends or imaginary customers). Greenwashing typically uses language, not numbers, and companies that are truly sustainable have data and metrics that back up their claims: instead of ‘made with nature in mind’ they actually say ‘85% powered by renewable energy.’
- Back up your sustainability claims with data. Keep current data available, only use data that can be verified, and keep it updated. Only use data that can be verified. Third-party certifications from credible organizations can help, ensure certifications are updated.
- Make accurate comparisons. Avoid using a vague ‘leading competitors’ language without actual back-up data, and compare similar products, so you’re not misleading consumers. If using measurements, make sure you’re using the same measurement for your products as for your competitors (metric vs. metric, etc), and that measurement conversions are used, they are accurate.
- Tell your sustainability story authentically. Bring people behind the scenes, share a peek into your practices and people making the products.
- Be honest about your brand’s sustainability practices, goals, and progress. If there are some areas that you’re still making progress in, don’t gloss over them, try to hide behind vague statements, or make up fake information. State your goals and the progress you’re looking to make, show accountability. If discussing plans or goals, be specific about what targets you’ve set and the timelines.
- Sustainability should be reflected in your operations, not just in your marketing. If you want to market your products as eco-friendly, you should consider your whole product’s life cycle, including manufacturing, waste disposal, distribution and shipping, packaging, and recycling. If you say you’re sustainable, what changes can you implement internally to reflect that? If you support racial equality, how do your working conditions and staffing policies reflect this?
- Don’t use misleading images that imply something that’s not true, or that over-state what you’re doing. If your vegetables are not grown in small plot gardens, don’t show a picture of a small garden. Showing photos of sea turtles for claims of recycled packaging can be an over-statement. Don’t show photos of a beautiful production facility if that’s not the reality–it’s too easy these days with social media for someone to post a real picture and make your well-intentioned efforts appear as greenwashing. If you’re ready to slap some natural images in your marketing, be transparent with customers about your company’s practices, and have information readily available to back up your claims.
- Don’t over-state the results of your actions or embellish. If you’re donating a portion of your profits to an environmental charity, don’t say you’re sustainable. If only one of your many production facilities is sustainable and the other ones are not, don’t say you are sustainably producing. Don’t embellish the truth.
- Don’t rely on carbon offsets and net-zero claims only. Understand your carbon emissions, and take steps to lower them, but don’t let that be a substitute for waste recycling or implementing other sustainability practices in your operations.
It’s easy for green marketing to translate to greenwashing in practice when an organization doesn’t live up to the standards of sustainable business practices or hides the reality.
Patagonia is a great example of honesty and authenticity: “We can’t pose Patagonia as the model of a responsible company,” its website reads. “We don’t do everything a responsible company can do, nor does anyone else we know. But we can tell you how we came to realize our environmental and social responsibilities and then began to act on them.”
The best way to prevent greenwashing in your business is to be fully transparent of what you intend, what you’re currently doing, what your plans are for the future, and what you’re still working on. Sustainability is more than just words, it’s actions: more sustainable operations, actionable goal-setting, progress-tracking and measurement, and reporting accurately on progress.
For more tips and information, check our Resources section.