Don't Let Greenwashing Fears Hold You Back

Transparency Is Key as Companies Move Toward Sustainability

By Published on .

Ian Yolles
Ian Yolles
Accusations of greenwashing are rampant right now, and many are well-founded. Research shows that consumers are more likely to purchase products from a brand perceived to be more "sustainable"; that is, if faced with a choice (and price being relatively equal), they would select the "greener" product. To capitalize on this trend, some companies have cobbled together feeble marketing programs that have gotten them called out for greenwashing.

Yet today's consumer is increasingly savvy and quick to speak out against those companies they feel are falsely marketing themselves to profit from the eco-conscious shopper. Social media give anyone the ability to immediately amplify and propagate their dissatisfaction, which can serve as a forceful greenwashing deterrent. This, coupled with some outspoken independent groups, has created a bit of a wild west environment for greemarketing monitoring within the private sector.

On one hand, policing by industry and consumer forces is positive, weeding out those that are talking the talk but not walking the walk. On the other, I wonder if the fear of being labeled a greenwasher is preventing brands that are earnestly looking to do something positive from doing so for fear of a massive backlash. Is our desire to protect the consumer and police the industry hindering us from making real progress in moving toward a more sustainable future?

When it comes to the notion of a purpose-driven brand and being green, it is important to acknowledge that, in the absolute sense, there's no such thing as a truly green or truly sustainable product or company. It's about a journey, a continuum. Whether you're talking about individual products or brands and businesses, everyone is somewhere along the continuum of becoming more sustainable. The key is to be transparent about where you are.

On the spectrum, there are those that have green DNA intrinsically embedded in their businesses. It is their foundation, the core of their company, service or product. Others are trying to find a way to integrate sustainability attributes into their products and brands in a way that is meaningful and makes a difference. Moving along this continuum isn't something that happens overnight. It can be costly and time-consuming and sometimes is even fundamentally impossible. The shift often happens in small steps, especially regarding large brands, and each step needs to be taken one at a time.

So amid this climate of skepticism, how can companies move along this spectrum? Two ingredients can authentically translate corporate responsibility into a positive impact and help avoid accusations of greenwashing and a subsequent social backlash:

  1. Take action: The process of change should reflect an "inside-out process." By that I mean start with your own house and take steps that move your business practices toward more sustainable solutions. As that process of internal transformation begins, it gives you permission to engage in a dialogue with your consumers. That creates an opportunity. It's even more powerful when the internal transformation inspires a shift in consumer behavior, moving individuals along the green spectrum as well. It's the "give a man a fish" strategy, and it can be accomplished through education or motivating action.
  2. Make that action measurable and trackable: If you attach goals to your efforts, both internal and external, and are able to measure and track those goals, your efforts become more credible; the impact, more tangible. This also has a profound impact on consumer behavior. There are many different ways to motivate people. Given the magnitude of the issues we face, one of the most effective motivators is showing consumers the impact that their individual actions have in the context of the collective action of others.

I am the first to admit that this is not a magic solution. Despite having the best intentions, some companies still miss the mark when it comes to designing and executing sustainability-related programs and integrating them in a way that is relevant and meaningful from a consumer point of view.

Industry guidelines from the FTC and industry watchdogs can provide a useful framework and should inspire companies to create marketing campaigns that are authentically driven and are not misleading. But the creation of an official third-party validator in this domain is an unlikely panacea. If you are seeking credibility for your marketing initiatives by merely following regulatory bodies, you're missing the point altogether.

To appease the greenwashing cowboys and weary consumers—and to authentically align your brand with a larger social or environmental purpose—you should focus first on measurable internal actions and use those as a basis to engage your consumer audience in a dialogue that inspires them to act in accord with your brand.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ian Yolles is chief sustainability officer of RecycleBank, a green rewards program that works with companies and brands such as Procter & Gamble, Kashi and Naked Juice to mobilize and reward consumers for taking environmentally preferred action while creating sustainability initiatives.
Most Popular