There is no such thing as a 100% sustainable, or perfectly "green" product, and it’s entirely fair to market environmentally preferable products as simply "greener," than the competition. This reflects the process of sustainability, which is a series of steps toward sustainability that do not out-pace your company’s finances. But avoiding greenwashing does require that sound science, honesty, and transparency are paramount.
Transparency: First of all there is often a misunderstanding of what "transparency" in this sense means. Transparency in this sense does not necessarily mean sharing sharing all your financial data or strategy. What it does mean is honesty: Being clear about what you know and don't know about the effects of your products and packaging, and about the many things you are still doing that know may be harmful to people or planet, along with your acknowledgement and plan to over coming them. It is about allowing consumers to make an informed choice and not feel manipulated.
Choice: People want to make their own informed choices, and many will still buy products that admit to not being completely green or fully sustainable, or even unhealthy. But they want to make that choice themselves. They do not want to be tricked or manipulated.
If you don’t believe that being honest about the downsides of your product will not stop people from buying your product, just take a look at a cigarette package. It is interesting that the regulation require cigarette packages to warn and display the effects of smoking, have not stopped the sale of cigarettes. However, people who still choose to smoke are doing it knowing the risks of their actions.
Misleading people about the sustainability or greenness of your product will be seen by many consumers as your brand robbing them of their free choice. And that is worse than being honest about your limitations in the first place.
Generation Z: If you are chasing the all-important Gen Z, then know that transparency is particularly important with them. For this group authenticity, honesty and transparency is paramount. And being digital natives, they will share anything they find that is untrue or misleading on social media, and they will get a lot of likes and shares!
Furthermore, Gen Z, have grown up on social media, their whole lives have been transparent, it is natural to them and expected. They are also a courageous generation--it takes courage to grow up with every detail of your life exposed to the world in the often harsh environment online. This courage is likely to be called upon to punish companies who are not transparent, and are therefore seen as attempting to remove personal choice.
Some of the thousands upon thousands of Gen Z young people in Prague, Czech Republic, at the regular Fridays For Future protest strikes. They believe that industry and politicians are stealing their health and their futures, and they want it to stop. What they want is honesty and action: for example, Yes, we at company X, produce plastics and fuels that pollute the air water and food, and we are aware that our whole economic system depends on that, so here is what we are doing as a company to change that system, and here is when we will do it by. Here is what we are doing well, here is what we are not yet able to do and why. They do not want to be distracted by feel good messages that only focus on the few good things the company is already doing, they will see that as greenwashing.
Remember, all it takes is one capable, courageous person with a smart phone and a bit of a social media following to destroy your brand, when they discover a falsehood or manipulation (or even perceived manipulation), or feel they have been wronged.
How to be transparent
First, you have to overcome your fear and decades of the marketing and advertising industries belief in manipulation and messaging meant to distract from a product's shortcomings. And this included fear of the next quarterly report, you must look at the long term big picture.
Second, If there is something about your product that you have not yet been able to change, be honest about it, and make a commitment to changing it as soon as it becomes financially feasible. Then keep your customers informed about your progress. Customers will reward you for your honesty.
Third, all of your environmental claims must be verified by an independent certifying body or auditor, or the manufacturer should be willing and able to provide the necessary documentation to prove a claim. Yes, this can take time and money, but think of it as insurance, something you likely would not do without. Purchasers should be able to easily verify the recycled content of a product, for example, or to learn whether it contains any ingredients of concern.
Understand all of the environmental impacts of your product across its whole lifecycle, from extraction of resources, to its post-use existence. Do not make claims about a single environmental impact or benefit without knowing how your product performs in terms of its other impacts, and without sharing that information with your customers. Beware of wilful blindness, lest you fall into unintentional greenwashing (see Part 2). Just because you aren't checking, does not mean others are not checking (Just ask Volkswagen!)
“There’s a sucker born every minute,” is a phrase attributed to P.T. Barnum. And it may be true. You can sucker someone, many people, out of their money. But unless you plan to disappear and never sell the same person the same product or service twice, this model will kill your brand.
The good news is that the solution is simple, and much much less expensive in the long run: be honest, and tell the whole truth. You brand may not instantly be labeled the most sustainable on the market, but when you do achieve sustainability, you will be believed, and rewarded.
If you want help preventing consumer backlash and would like help with your green communication, contact us at Butterflies & Hurricanes, we will be happy to be your partner in creating honest brand communications.
Michaela Thomas is the owner and creative director of Butterflies & Hurricanes design studio in Prague, Czech Republic.