Fresh eyes

Greenwashed up – the cost of getting your sustainability claims wrong

A green pen colouring in smoke from a chimney

Written by Adam Ogden,
Senior PR & Communications Manager at Freshfield

With the world’s gaze firmly on climate change as part of last year’s COP26, businesses across the country rushed to extoll their sustainability credentials.

Commitments to reduce corporate carbon emissions came from fast-food chains and banks to small firms and family businesses, while claims around use of closed loop recycled materials and sustainable production processes featured heavily in news releases, social media messages and websites.

It made sense for the planet and from a business perspective.

In a recent study by Business in the Community, 72 per cent of people said it was important to them that the businesses they buy from take climate action, so the rush to make these claims came from brands trying to stay relevant to customers.

In some organisations, low carbon practices are genuinely making a real difference.

Here in the North West we’re seeing large environmentally driven projects from our clients. They include colleges across Lancashire training up local people on how to maintain and repair electric vehicles or install heat pumps while Cumbria Action for Sustainability helps local communities to improve their home’s energy efficiency. Meanwhile Bolton at Home is building a green skills hub to encourage local businesses and communities to thrive and find sustainable work in a carbon neutral world.

Further afield, bigger companies are showing an authentic approach to becoming more sustainable. Take IKEA as a golden example. By putting sustainability at the forefront of its brand, the company releases a clear yearly report documenting its journey to being climate positive by 2030.

More than just the individual schemes such as furniture recycling programmes, the transparent approach details its successes and failures in an open and honest way which create trust in its customers.

The cost of getting it wrong

However, recent examples have shown why businesses need to be crystal clear on their sustainability credentials and are able to back up their claims. Many brands are making environmental claims that they can’t prove. With regulators sharpening their teeth on misleading or false claims, businesses need to be extra careful in what they say.

Already this year we’ve seen Oatly, known for its direct, Gen Z-focused digital marketing approach, forced to pull its adverts after the Advertising Standards Agency ruled its environmental claims were misleading. Not incorrect – but just overstated and lacking evidence.

Similarly, Lipton Ice Tea was censured for claiming its bottles were made from 100 per cent recycled materials, when the cap and label weren’t.

All this results in negative publicity and creates a lack of trust with customers and stakeholders. It’s partly why the same Business in the Community survey also found that almost two-thirds of customers don’t trust brands to do what they promise when it comes to climate action.

Does your message stand up to the scrutiny?

Industry and consumer scrutiny has never been more intense around environmental claims and the importance of getting your messaging right is vital.

When building a set of messaging or promotional material, businesses need to ensure that their claims can stand up to this level of scrutiny. That involves looking at the whole picture and ethos of your company and its values. Making a green claim on one product or service has the possibility to backfire if your company’s overall values and policies aren’t aligned.

From a communications perspective, brands need to take a step back from the quick wins of talking about carbon neutrality or sustainable processes and think about their overall place in the world. It’s the wrong approach to promote the reduced waste of one process or service, when another arm of the company is culpable for poor environmental performance.

Hopefully COP26 will result in more leaders using their business to contribute to reducing the carbon footprint. But if you are going to make a claim, make sure you have the evidence to back it up otherwise your claim will be dismissed and you could have a major PR and reputational issue on your hands.

If you need specialist advice around communicating your environmental impact strategies, our strategic PR and communications team can help.

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