Like most things in the court of public opinion, stating environmental claims that you cannot back is a big no-no. But is it really what bothers us about greenwashing? Or is it the very passionate and eloquent wording used by corporate communicators to describe real eco-friendly initiatives?
Let’s see how it all started.
In 1986, American environmentalist James Westervelt walked into a hotel and noticed signs on the wall asking clients to reuse their towels to save the environment, a message that came in stark contrast with the amount of wastage he had also noticed there.
Westervelt concluded this was a trick the hotel used to avoid washing more towels, flagrant cost-cutting disguised in environmental claims. So he coined a word for it: greenwashing.
Since then, scores of large corporations have been accused and even sued for spilling out as many environmental claims as they spilled toxic waste.
But today the matter has acquired more subtlety and greenwashing also refers to PR campaigns that walk on thin ice with keywords such as “eco-friendly”, “sustainable” and, obviously; “green”.
It is difficult to argue against the fact that such discourse is merely a marketing ploy and rarely shows accountability. In fact, it usually is the case and it precedes no meaningful engagement.
In some instances though, there is an actual commitment. So how do you separate the wheat from the chaff?
In an effort to understand the phenomenon, Canadian environmental marketing firm TerraChoice created the “seven sins of greenwashing” in 2010.
They identified seven types of environmental claims:
The Seven Sins of Greenwashing
- No proof
An environmental claim not substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification.
- The hidden trade-off
A claim suggesting that a product is green based on a narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues.
A claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer.
- Worshiping false labels
A product that, through either words or images, gives the impression of third-party endorsement where no such endorsement exists; fake labels.
An environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products.
- Lesser of two evils
A claim that may be true within the product category but that risks distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole.
Environmental claims that are simply false.
And the phenomenon has also been scrutinised by the academic world. In a 2020 edition of Environmental Sciences Europe, a team of Brazilian researchers published a review which identifies five types of green marketing:
Selective disclosure: “two main behaviours simultaneously: retain the disclosure of negative information related to the company’s environmental performance and expose positive information regarding its environmental performance. This two-folded behaviour can be named as selective disclosure.”
Decoupling: “Companies that have a negative CSR performance and at the same time apply a positive communication about their CSR performance”. They “deflect attention to minor issues or lead to create ‘green talk’ through statements aimed at satisfying stakeholder requirements.”
Signalling and corporate legitimacy theory: “the result of self-interested calculations of the organization’s key stakeholders, and it is based on stakeholder’s perceptions of their personal benefit deriving from corporate activities and communication.”
Claims: this is the category under which the seven sins would come, it describes the use of “textual arguments that explicitly or implicitly refer to the ecological benefits of a product or service to create a misleading environmental claim.”
Executional: nature-evoking elements, mostly imagery or sounds, which intentionally or not, may induce false perceptions of the brand’s greenness.
The available classifications and literature on greenwashing are enough to establish that consumers and the wider public now possess the knowledge and tools to identify greenwashing “red flags”. In fact, these categories serve as a lens through which one can establish whether a company’s claims are in fact translated into action.
The financial incentive that companies have to become socially and environmentally conscious makes it hard for marketers to resist bold campaigns and end up ticking all the aforementioned boxes. Green markets are on the rise and greenwashing has created a trust issue on the consumer side.
Well-known companies in the garments industry resort to non-specific green terminology with the goal to increase sales appear environmentally conscious, while it is a fact that “fast fashion” brands heavily rely on polluting chemicals and carbon intensive infrastructure.
But these greenwashing typologies are not in any way disqualifying. Green talking does not necessarily mean greenwashing.
Let’s take a less obvious example from an equally profit-oriented sector; financial services. There is a clear paradox between the sector’s short-termist DNA and the essence of environmental policy and sustainability.
“Yet, there is a way to make it work”, says ICC Group Chief Strategy Officer Konstantinos Yiannaki.
“Many great organisations have successfully integrated sustainability and environmental consciousness at their core without smoke and mirrors. An organisation that manages to incorporate environmental friendly practices and sustainability throughout its processes, talent management, services and products is not greenwashing but can definitely be talking green and inspiring others. The key here is transparency, communicating environmental consciousness in full honesty and with true impact by accepting an organisation’s imperfections and limitations where you try to see what concrete steps can be reasonably taken, within these limits”, he explains.
“From now onwards many sectors will be expected to comply with environmental regulations which apply to services that did not fall under their scope yet, such as financial services” he adds.
And rightly so.
In point of fact, the financial sector is bracing for the impact of regulation as a factor of change in sustainability and more right-mindedness about environmental claims, with targeted European rules on non-financial reporting and ESG integration benchmarks.
Under the new EU Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (SDFR) rules, which entered into force in March 2021, investment products will be categorised as sustainable or non-sustainable and any claims about sustainable financial products will be subject to disclosure requirements. In other words, reporting requirements will make it hard to state unfounded environmental claims or engage in sloppy greenwashing.
With its new brand Axiance, ICC Group has made a priority to drive sustainability within their organisation, taking small steps which translate into durable change on the longer-term. Their recent partnership with the social entreprise Ecologi in financing reforestation across the world is an achievement it can proudly claim.
It has always been a priority to address workers’ rights and compensation, the use of renewable energy and limiting waste, all part of their new climate positive strategy as they plan to move into energy-efficient facilities this summer.
It has now become essential and in some instances obligatory for many organisations to address all facets of sustainability within their own structure as well as through their products or services, and the manner in which they herald modest initiatives or major steps taken in this respect should not be the object of criticism or source of guilt.