Op-Ed: Green marketing in 2021: Celebrating progress over perfection
This year marks the time for a refreshed approach to green marketing and communicating sustainable product credentials. For too long, brands have hidden behind unsubstantiated claims and ambiguous green messaging that misleads customers.
It’s no secret that citizens trust in brands sustainability claims is at an all-time low. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) investigation into greenwashing could not have come at a better time as over 83% of citizens feel misled by green and sustainable buzzwords in advertising. Compare Ethics research has also found that only 20% of shoppers trust a brands sustainability claim. Therefore, we must tackle the current barriers that prevent businesses from marketing sustainable products responsibly to ensure that trust in this critical societal issue is maintained.
By nature, green marketing is an oxymoron. How can a company committed to promoting responsible consumption, continue to push products on to citizens, when many have argued we have already reached ‘peak stuff’? There is a compelling case that we need to pursue a “de-growth agenda” that promotes business models of re-use backed by durable products. This is not the focus of our investigation today, but I will be launching new insights on this in the coming months. Our focus today is on accurate communications and ensuring that businesses are equipped to get the environmental product conversation right.
We need specific, authentic messages to be used for ‘green’ marketing and to rebuild trust. This means embracing the conversation that celebrates progress over perfection based on specific substantiated claims. This also means being vulnerable, which is a tricky thing to muster for many businesses. Through transparency and sharing where your business has a gap in its knowledge or product, you are building an authentic conversation. Rather than one where you can be misconceived as greenwashing or “just another brand trying to pull the wool over customers’ eyes”.
A new agenda for green marketing means bringing the discussion to specifics and not omitting data about where you are at on your journey. In practice, this means communicating specifically what data has been substantiated as “environmentally better” and being clear about where an organization currently stands in relation to its targets. Even if you are at the start of this target led journey, this will be more accurate than a catch-all term – such as ‘conscious collection’ – that is made up of 50% of a “better” material that will still end up in landfill and cannot decompose.
As a business you should consider: What does this collection not achieve? What are your next steps? What does this collection lead to? What does this mean for your business to reach its targets? This is the level of specificity required for an authentic conversation. It will tell your customers really where you are at and where you are headed. For too long, brands have hidden behind catch-all “conscious” or “eco” terms to create a narrative of trust on sustainability issues. However, such businesses may not realise that these vague terms have the potential to have the opposite effect. If we are not specific, there is room for misinterpretation.
When we are specific, we shed a light on the fact that we are not perfect. No business is perfect. Successful green marketing will celebrate progress over perfection. Transparent messaging that shares where your business is today, with a clear understanding of the areas you are working to address can help to rebuild the trust deficit.
We know this level of specificity can pay off. For example, Patagonia’s 2019, “Everything but the teeth” campaign openly stated that everything but the zipper was made from recycled materials. Sharing honest reports and intricate details of collections is likely to avert the damage that can be caused by cancel culture. Recent research has revealed that 76% of citizens have stopped buying, switched to a competitor or discouraged others from supporting a brand if the organisation does something they disagree with. Don’t let your failure to be honest, open up your business to this risk when being specific and thus authentic can build trust with your customer base.
A second consideration is that authentic green marketing should focus on a clear long-term vision and how a business creates value for future generations. Not just its current customer. As a result, this message will enable a business to engage with stakeholders about its sustainability journey thus far, with a clear inclination on the areas it still needs to address.
This is particularly relevant when communicating sustainability targets and climate-related goals at a corporate level. We have the access to tools and frameworks that can help us to achieve clear, transparent and meaningful objectives. For instance, applying a science-based targets approach when measuring and reporting on scope 1-3 carbon emissions targets. This can ensure that your company is working to adequately to minimise greenhouse gas emissions in line with the necessary 1.5 degrees warming outlined at the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Communicating emission reduction targets that are compared to outdated emissions baselines won’t suffice. Nor will it build trust between your company and customers. The 2020 Fashion Transparency Index revealed that only 16% of the 222 brands surveyed published science-based targets. Much work can still be done in this arena.
Focusing on where your organisation is headed means reviewing how your targets are broadcasted. A narrative that exchanges “Look what we’ve done…” for “We are still working towards…” can draw the customers eye to the future and help them see the bigger picture on how your business’s purpose and product can contribute to creating a better society and environment. This will not only boost your reputation but increase trust. Edelman reveals citizens now want to shop with brands who solve problems for wider society, a trend that has accelerated in light of the global coronavirus pandemic.
When striving for progress over perfection, asking for support can help you see the wood through the trees. Designing a communications strategy that avoids greenwashing can be complex, especially across multiple media channels. As the clampdown from consumers, investors and regulators on misleading environmental claims continues, this year presents a perfect opportunity to seek guidance in what environmental product claims can be substantiated and what has so far been omitted that needs to be included to get the conversation right.
If you are a business searching for advice on how to substantiate environmental product claims businesses like Compare Ethics can use technology to audit your products and provide actionable advice on how to avoid greenwashing. Similarly, regulatory bodies like the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) accept inquiries from organizations about how they should follow and adhere to the ASA Environmental claims code.
Join our online workshop 14 April that will support businesses to create environmental claims without greenwashing and access insights into what consumers actually want to know about responsible products . More details here.
Every consumer business across Europe will need to get this right. Consumers are waking up to untrusted claims, regulators are clamping down on mistakes and investors are ramping up their standards of what good environmental products look like.
The higher level of surveillance on environmental claims means that businesses should embrace the attitude of progress over perfection. Businesses must review product communications with specific data that can be substantiated first. Then accurately communicate through a data-driven approach.
When it comes to green marketing, there is no longer room for smoke and mirrors because no single organisation has saved the world yet, so they should not pretend they have.