An increasing number of companies are introducing sustainable practices into their strategy. Rightly so, knowing that 70% of consumers in the US and Canada prefer companies that emphasize preserving the environment and following ethical practices. However, incorporating these practices into their marketing is harder than it seems.
The issue is that many companies are not transparent in their marketing - or their level of sustainability. Many businesses will go to market with catchy slogans but fail to have a proven positive impact. They are misleading their customers by "greenwashing". While this move to environmentally conscious consumerism is very much needed to reduce our collective carbon footprint, unbacked claims of green practices by brands are rather a step back instead of a step forward when it comes to building your brand.
82% of American customers say that they will continue to use a brand they trust, even if a competitor becomes popular and trendy. But they won’t hang around for long if your advertising is misleading. Greenwashing can severely harm your reputation and diminish customers’ overall trust in your brand. To avoid long-term harm to your brand image and to reach today’s eco-friendly consumers, we’ll show you how to do green marketing right.
What Green Marketing Is - and What It Shouldn’t Be
Incorporating sustainability into marketing campaigns started in the 1960s when the environmentalist movement took off and an increasing number of companies decided to create a new “green image”. Green marketing, or as sometimes called eco-marketing, can be used for various purposes: to promote a specific eco-conscious product, draw attention to a time-sensitive issue, or promote a concrete initiative.
However, it is important to keep in mind that when a brand uses low environmental impact as a unique selling point they not only promote a specific service or product, they also actively draw attention to the company's processes and business practices. If sustainability is not actually a part of their overall strategy, that could easily lead to backlash from consumers. That’s why companies need to adopt a holistic approach when it comes to sustainability.
What happens if your customers think that they are being misled by your marketing? It creates an adverse reaction, curbs the trust in your brand and you’ll be faced with the backlash of ‘greenwashing’.
But what is greenwashing exactly?
Greenwashing is when companies invest more of their time and money in marketing themselves as sustainable than in actual corporate environmental efforts. The term itself was coined by Jay Westerfeld, who originally referred to the hypocrisy of hotels creating ads on TV and radio encouraging guests to reuse their towels while neglecting other crucial elements of sustainability in their everyday business practices.
How can customers spot greenwashing?
Greenwashing is easily recognized by looking at a brand’s budget. During the first Earth Day in 1970, corporations spent eight times more on establishing a green image through advertising than the amount they spent on environmental research initiatives. It can also be recognized through the use of phrases on packaging and in advertising that they can’t back up, such as “all-natural”, “non-toxic” and “eco-friendly”, or when brands simply decorate use a green background and images of leaves and trees to signal that the product somehow contributes to the fight against climate change.
And it’s more common than you’d think. A 2017 study of more than 5000 home products showed that 95% of them had problematic green claims. Greenwashing seems to be becoming the fake news of the marketing industry. Even the biggest companies like McDonald’s and FIJI Water make these mistakes, so let’s look at what we can learn from their slip-ups.
Brands Who’ve Greenwashed Consumers - and Were Caught
In 2009, McDonald’s changed its logo to green in Europe to “clarify their responsibility for the preservation of natural resources”. However, the rebrand was not enough to persuade the skeptics. If the brand is ingrained in people’s minds as “unhealthy” and “wasteful” this is clearly not enough to convince them otherwise. Brands need to show real, long-term commitment to environmental causes and a logo change to green accompanied by empty promises just won’t do.
The brand ran into another greenwashing scandal in 2019 when they replaced their plastic straws with a paper alternative. This created a huge media buzz, however, it quickly turned into bad publicity for the brand. As it turns out, the new paper straws were not actually recyclable. On top of that, the impact was minimal as straws only take up 0.025 % of total plastic waste in the ocean. Of course, adapting to more sustainable practices takes time. But the way McDonald’s only announced a small step towards the right direction, while failing to show how they’re going to take action in other parts of their business, is a loud and clear example of greenwashing.
This advert is clever and creative, showing the “last plastic straw” being exhibited like a rare and expensive art piece while the brand promises to completely ditch the use of plastic straws and sell the last one on eBay as the very last McDonalds plastic straw. But knowing the deceptive things we just talked about, this catchy ad loses its appeal, doesn’t it?
The Twittersphere agreed. Customers today are looking for real impact. It’s understandable that brands want to keep shouting about their environmental commitments, but if it's done in a deceiving way, backlash is inevitable. It will spread on social media like wildfire, which will eventually make more people lose trust in your brand’s credibility.
Based on their brand image it’s hard to imagine that FIJI Water Company was sued for “deceptively marketing itself as carbon-negative”. The lawsuit in 2010 revealed that the reason many customers chose FIJI and not other brands is that they claimed to be “the only carbon negative bottled water” on the market.
Being carbon-negative means they remove more carbon pollution from our atmosphere than they release into it. But that wasn’t the case with FIJI. Although it was a plan for the future, at the time of the lawsuit, they were unable to lay out a concrete plan to achieve this ambitious goal. Forward crediting is dangerously deceptive and can make customers lose all trust in the company.
And what about their most recent TV advertising campaign? It was a series of ads depicting the contrast of the polluted, urban, dark grey modern world and the clean untouched nature FIJI Water represents. This is a textbook example of greenwashing. While claiming to be “part of nature” and “untouched by men” they disguise what they really are doing: selling water in plastic bottles that take 450 years to decompose. But that’s not all. While they advertise the cleanest water for a very steep price, 47% of local Fijians don’t even have access to clean drinking water.
However, the brand seemed to learn its lesson since the scandals. Their current website avoids using big claims and puts concrete actionable steps next to every grand promise.
4 Tips for a Successful Green Marketing Campaign
1. Be fully transparent about your commitments
Lack of information leads to a lack of trust. The real danger of greenwashing is deceiving your customers and losing their loyalty in the process.
Of course, your company can’t become Greta Thunberg overnight. However successful green marketing is not about big achievements, it’s about transparency. By showcasing your commitments you should simultaneously register your shortcomings as well. This might seem scary to do at first. After all, transparency is hard enough to achieve in the internal communications of a company, let alone in what you tell your customers. But people are aware of the dishonest world of green marketing campaigns, and they will appreciate you being upfront and realistic about your commitments. This way you can avoid disappointments.
One way to stay transparent is to set concrete action steps with clear deadlines. By doing this, you allow your audience to keep you accountable while managing their expectations. Book a meeting with your team to talk about the next steps you can take as a brand then share them with your audience. This could be anything between including sustainability goals in the Corporate Social Responsibility section of your website to building a social media campaign around your plans. Remember, no matter if the actions are big or small, being transparent about trial and error is always better than being inactive and dishonest.
Mini Case Study: LEGO
Fortunately, there are companies that are leading the way in honest green marketing practices. In 2015, Lego announced to “go green” and committed to spending $150 million on its sustainability efforts in the next 15 years. There is even a separate part of their website providing a detailed description of their efforts. What’s great about LEGO’s approach is that they are not only transparent about their plans but they are also honest about their current shortcomings.
They plan to make all LEGO bricks from sustainable materials (plastic sourced from sugarcane) by 2030. But at the same time, they also admitted that currently only 2% of their products are made of materials that fit their sustainability criteria. LEGO also tracks the progress of other efforts through easy-to-understand infographics.
On their website, there is a whole section dedicated to sustainability reporting, where they depict an honest picture of the progression of their sustainability efforts. Greenwashing is all about dishonesty, so being transparent in where your brand is on track to achieve its goals is very important for building brand loyalty with your customers.
This 2018 commercial is an excellent example of what LEGO is doing right. The video is full of concrete actionable plans, statistics about the impact of their sustainability efforts, and it also explains how all of this fits into their brand image.
2. Collect credentials for authenticity
While you might detail your efforts on your brand’s website, there are strict regulations about what you can label your packages with. Using terms like ‘recyclable’, ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘sustainable’, if not true, could even be illegal. Even though it’s harder to track, deceiving your customers with your illustrations of green meadows and clear skies won’t make you an environmentalist superhero overnight. You could lose the support of the environmentally-conscious audience altogether.
That’s where certain sustainability credentials come into the picture. In the US the most known one is the Federal Trade Commission's Green Guide but you can seek out third-party credentials in most countries. Think about this as a vehicle license. As you wouldn’t drive a car that hasn’t been approved by the authorities for being safe, consumers will also trust your sustainability claims more if your brand has the right green accreditation.
These credentials will not only enable you to back your sustainability claims with evidence but they will also make it easier for sustainability-driven consumers to choose your brand over the competition. Win-win.
3. Connect sustainability to brand equity
Your brand equity is the social value associated with your company and your products. Reducing your environmental footprint is an amazing way to showcase how your brand contributes to society in a positive way. Unfortunately, environmental issues are not going away anytime soon, so sustainability can make your brand valuable in the long-term.
Apple is the master of brand equity. They know the real value of maintaining a positive perception by their target audience. They also know that the way to do this is by taking a clear stance on issues that are important to them. As you’ve seen, sustainability is not a topic to mess around with. Falling to communicate how your brand contributes to the global fight against climate change is a missed opportunity to solidify your positive reputation.
Mini Case Study: Ben & Jerry’s
Ben & Jerry's 2019 advertising campaign is a great example of showcasing sustainability as a core company value. This might be surprising but there is no concrete selling point of their product in the video, not even their eye-catching packaging. Ice cream is only featured as a metaphor for our melting planet and after some hard-hitting facts about climate change, the brand invites the audience to join them to the youth-led climate protests that took place worldwide in September 2019. This showed that on top of their green efforts, Ben & Jerry’s stands for sustainability and will use its platform to educate people - regardless of what anyone thinks.
Consumers might fall in love with your product, but it will be only a quick affair without shared values. You can create a long-term relationship with your audience by integrating sustainability into your company’s core values.
4. Make sustainability a business-wide initiative
As we mentioned before, using sustainability in your marketing requires a holistic approach. You need to show your customers' commitment to and engagement with environmental issues on multiple levels of your company. Once greenwashing destroys the trust in your brand, it is really hard to rebuild it. That’s why you need a comprehensive green marketing strategy.
A credible green marketing strategy is always business-wide. You need to think about the environmental impact of your entire production cycle. Of course, it’s very difficult to transform your whole process all of a sudden, but that shouldn’t make you ditch green marketing altogether! Remember, you can avoid greenwashing if you are honest and transparent about your plans to improve.
Mini Case Study: Patagonia
Patagonia is doing this right. On their website, they admit that everything they make has an impact on the planet and they even call out the clothing industry’s irresponsible practices, most brands’ dishonest use of green claims, and the culture of overconsumption. Even though their brand is part of one of the most harmful industries to the planet, they show how they make an effort to do their best in areas ranging from using recycled materials, experimenting with organic agriculture, and taking care of their workers. For them, sustainability is ingrained in every part of their business, as it should be.
Intentionally or not, using false claims in your green marketing harms your brand and could even lead to severe financial consequences. You certainly don’t want to end up like Walmart, who had to pay $1 million in 2017 to settle a greenwashing lawsuit, after advertising false claims about the compostability of plastic products.
Sustainability is more than a trend. We can see that more and more customers are prioritising brands that they view as environmentally-friendly while boycotting companies that fail to meet their expectations. Don’t be one of them. Get ahead of the competition by staying transparent about your activities and including sustainability in your brand’s core values. Your audience’s long-term loyalty will be the reward.