Greenwashing? Marketers Actually Undersell Their Sustainability Work

Limiting the Conversation Keeps It From Advancing

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Ikea did something quite remarkable last month. No, everyone's favorite flatpack furniture maker didn't produce a self-assembling bookcase. That would have been remarkable. What it did was introduce a TV commercial for the United Kingdom that didn't mention products of an aspirational way of life. Instead the entire ad was devoted to sustainability.

Sustainability is becoming a big deal in business. By being environmentally and socially responsible some of the world's biggest corporations believe they can better protect against coming regulation, market fluctuations, resource scarcity, ethical reputation issues and other variables that will hurt profits in the future.

Just last month General Mills announced it would stop using GMO crops in its Cheerios brand. Major apparel makers like Levi Strauss, Walmart, Nike and other major brands have committed to cleaning up their industry through the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. And Unilever has put sustainability at the heart of its future business planning.

For companies to create sustainable businesses, however, they need their consumers to buy into buying more sustainable products and services. But consumers don't care about saving the planet, right? That's where sustainability marketing and advertising comes in.

Chipotle sowed the seeds last year for sustainability marketing with its Scarecrow advert and interactive game. But it was Unilever's decision to start a global multi-brand social media campaign, Project Sunlight, that made CMOs consider how sustainable living could be a point of brand differentiation and ponder how they can start telling their own company's sustainability stories.

Until recently most companies shied away from addressing sustainability directly with their consumers, often because their experiences in developing green products and brands suggested they could only win over a minority audience with such messages (and risk claims of "greenwashing" at that.) Instead sustainability was discussed just with "stakeholders" such as NGOs, investors and specialist media.

The growth of social media changed that. One reason is that social media has greatly amplified the corporate reputation problems that companies once managed through a heavy dose of crisis PR. Another compelling reason is that those much sought-after milliennials not only live and breathe social media, they also seem to care a lot more about the environment and sustainable living than their parents.

The "Social Media Sustainability Index 2013," our recent study of how 475 major companies use social media to communicate sustainability and corporate social responsibility, shows that an impressive 233 out of 475 major companies embrace social media for sustainability storytelling. However, the majority of those companies talk sustainability only through their corporate sites or dedicated sustainability and corporate-social-responsibility social channels. Few talk sustainability at a brand level.

For example, we studied the online presence of 133 leading brands owned by Coca-Cola, General Mills, J&J, Kellogg's, Mars, Mondelez, Nestle, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble and Unilever. Of those 133 brands, just 35 talked about sustainability or social-responsibility issues during a four-month period, September to December, 2013. Most were keen to discuss sustainability projects on their corporate sites, but the missed opportunity to persuade a consumer audience becomes even more apparent when you consider the potential audience that these brands command.

Using Facebook as a barometer, we looked at the total number of "likes" and fans associated with these brands. Together the 133 brands have garnered more than 450 million Facebook likes. But the 35 brands that discuss sustainability or social-responsibility issues account for just 113 million likes, and 78 million of those are fans of just one brand, Coca-Cola.

Facebook likes are hardly the greatest barometer of how well consumers listen to brands, what with the high number of fake accounts and the well-documented low level of engagement for brands on the social network. Nevertheless, once you "like" a brand on Facebook there's an opportunity for that brand to reach you directly with its content. That's still some serious sustainability clout.

Some brands like Coca-Cola, M&Ms. Nespresso, Cheerios and Dove have started integrating sustainability and corporate-social-responsibility themes into their social-media brand channels. If other companies that care about sustainability want to stop preaching to the choir they too will have to draw on the persuasive power of their brands and bring sustainability marketing into the mainstream.

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