Greenwashing is not just bad for your brand, but dangerous for people and planet. At B&H we have been studying this dangerous practice and can help you avoid mistakes and protect your brand, while doing real good in the world.
Most people have heard of greenwashing, though there is a lot more to it than many people think, and some companies do it without fully being aware if it, thought that can still cause negative effects.
Greenwashing describes “green” marketing or PR practices that are deceptive, and can range from designing product labels in such a way that consumers don’t notice when information on harmful chemicals or processes is missing, to massive campaigns portraying companies or brands as environmentally friendly, when they are not.
The techniques of greenwashing are becoming widely known by consumers. This makes the possibility of customer backlash even greater. The greenwashing techniques most commonly used include:
Half-truths: This involves claiming actual environmental benefits and artfully excluding elements that are still damaging to the environment. For example, claiming a product contains no plastic, yet it comes packaged plastic; or that the product itself produces no carbon, when the process of making and transporting it does.
Example 1: True, they contain 0% Cadmium, Mercury, and Lead, and produce no carbon. However the process that makes them is not carbon neutral.
Unsubstantiated claims: This involves making unproven or untested claims, and hoping no one asks for details. This is also called the "just trust us" approach, and seeks to capitalise on customers’ trust in your brand, though in the long run it diminishes that trust, and the brand relationship.
Example 2: Nature’s Own Green Label paper plates claimed the plates were recyclable but did not have the competent and reliable scientific evidence to prove it. The company also could not back up claims that products were biodegradable and/or compostable.
Irrelevance: Some manufacturers make factually correct environmental assessments that are no longer relevant for the product category. For example, many aerosol products continue to make "CFC-free" claims even though CFCs have been banned in Europe since 1995. Another example is “Not tested on animals” though animal testing has been banned since 2013.
Example 3: CFCs have been banned for decades, to claim that a product is CFC-free is irrelevant. The same with animal testing, which has been banned in Europe since 2013.
The hidden trade-off: When a bold claim is made about a single environmental attribute, which can mislead purchasers to think that it is the only one of concern for the product category. For example, a cleaning product is produced in a certified renewable energy factory, but no claims are made about the toxicity or health hazards of the product itself; or a food is made from all bio ingredients, but the company treats its employees unfairly or working conditions are unhealthy for workers.
Example 4: Natural American Spirit cigarettes are advertised as an “eco friendly” because they they have no additives and use recycled paper, ignoring the fact that there are more than 7,000 chemicals in cigarette smoke, including hundreds that are toxic and at least 69 that cause cancer. Plus more than 5.6 trillion cigarette filters are thrown into the environment every year.
Vagueness: Broad, poorly defined claims such as "100% natural," which can be misleading because some naturally occurring substances, such as petroleum, arsenic and dioxin, can be extremely harmful to human health. Legitimate environmental claims are not vague.
Example 5: This is actually not an eco product. The “eco” in the name refers to “economic sense”, though the whole product design is made to resemble an ecologically safe product. It is difficult for people not to see this as intentional, and to feel duped by it, which is bad news for the brand relationship. The key thing to remember here is that, in today’s smartphone culture, all it takes is one capable person with a social media following to catch on to the deception, to destroy your brand.
Example 6: Volkswagen’s desire to be number one in diesel car sales, led to one of the biggest greenwashing scandals ever. It hit the news in 2016, when it was discovered that Volkswagen had installed secret software that would defeat emissions testing in their line of supposedly “clean diesel” cars. (We will have more on this in the next post in this series.)
Relativism: A product can be the most environmentally preferable product in its class but still be an inappropriate choice. For example, a car may be the least polluting in its class, but still pollute more than other classes of cars; or a food may contain the least amount of salt or saturated fat in its category, but still contain an unhealthy amount.
This is not a how-to manual;-) And even if someone was inclined to take it that way, it would not be a very good idea, because, as mentioned above, the public has become aware of these practices, and they are not only angered by them, but often retaliatory.
The point is that not only will greenwashing do more harm to your brand than good, it is it is harmful to people, our planet, and progress. The sustainability business model offers many new opportunities for economic growth and innovation, but transparency—honesty—is a huge part of that and is one of the greatest marketing values that works with the mighty generation Z. Yet, green washing still happens. Why it happens is the subject of Part 2 of this series.
Michaela Thomas is owner and design director of Butterflies & Hurricanes design studio in Prague, Czech Republic.