Led by millennials, modern consumers are going green and no longer base their purchasing decisions on price and quality alone. The modern consumer is also increasingly eco-aware, and filters brands based on their environmental footprint. Whether we’re talking about food, skincare, electronics or clothing, people prefer green products made ethically and responsibly.
While this shift has had a positive effect on brands, pushing them to give up harmful practices, it has also encouraged the formation of a grey marketing territory, where brands make unsubstantiated claims about being green just to pull customers in.
Practiced intentionally or not, greenwashing is risky for everyone: for consumers because they’re being manipulated into thinking they’re buying green products when they’re not, for brands because they are damaging their reputation, and for the environment, because those products still have a high footprint. But what exactly are the greenwashing practices you should avoid and what should you do instead to promote your green business?
What is greenwashing?
Although the term “greenwashing” has only been a buzzword for a few years, the practice itself started in the 1980s with oil company Chevron being one of the first to do it. In the mid-1980s, Chevron was running radio and TV ads on how they were a green oil company and helped the environment, when in fact they were violating the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and dumping oil into protected areas.
The term was coined in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westervelt, who pointed out that the hotels which encouraged guests to reuse towels did little to reduce energy waste or help the environment. Broadly speaking, greenwashing is a deceptive marketing practice where brands promote their products or production processes as being green without providing actual evidence, to boost their public image. Greenwashing is one of the most criticized marketing tactics and although sometimes business owners do it unintentionally, it can have huge repercussions for a brand’s reputation.
Greenwashing marketing practices you should avoid
TerraChoice identified 7 misleading practices as being the main marketing claims businesses should avoid. If you want to promote your green business without greenwashing, these are massive DON’TS:
1. Don’t offer customers a hidden trade-off
Don’t advertise a product as being better based on a limited set of attributes. For example, packaging made from recycled cardboard isn’t eco-friendly if the production process still caused greenhouse emissions.
2. Don’t leave out proof
If you claim that a product is eco-friendly and good for the environment, provide proof from a reliable third party to back this up.
3. Don’t be vague
Don’t promote a brand’s products or services using vague, general terms that consumers can misinterpret. For example, a company can say that its products are “all-natural”, but all-natural doesn’t necessarily mean good.
4. Don’t make irrelevant claims.
You shouldn’t try to make a product sound more appealing by advertising irrelevant or misleading features. For example, a company doesn’t have any merit for making “cholesterol-free” plant-based products, because cholesterol can only be found in animal products. The same goes for CFC-free products because the use of CFC in foods has already been banned.
5. Don’t be the lesser of two evils
Don’t focus on one positive feature of a product and disregard the fact that the product as a whole is harmful to the user and the environment.
6. Don’t make false claims
Don’t use false, unsubstantiated claims, such as fake certificates to advertise your product.
7. Don’t use fake labels
Don’t add graphic elements on a product label to mislead customers into thinking that the product is certified. For example, brands can add a gold ribbon with the text “eco-preferred” that doesn’t mean anything. Nevertheless, many people will buy it because it looks trustworthy.
Apart from these misleading practices, greenwashing companies may also apply other visual tactics to give the impression of an eco-friendly product, such as using the color green for the packaging, adding photos of natural landscapes into the ads, or having words such as “clean” in the company name. While shopping, customers are almost always in a hurry and don’t have the time to analyze claims or compare products. In most cases, they buy the product that looks healthier and greener, even though it may just be a marketing stunt. A phrase like “made with love for the environment” sounds very appealing, but factually, it doesn’t mean anything.
How can greenwashing harm your business reputation?
Not every company that uses greenwashing is necessarily evil. You may even use greenwashing marketing tactics inspired by other companies, without knowing the dangers of this practice:
Damage your credibility
Greenwashing is supposed to boost a brand’s public image, but in reality, it can have an adverse effect. Once consumers discover that your claims are fake and you use unethical practices, they will lose their trust in you and your credibility will be affected. As you know, it can be incredibly difficult for a business to recover from public controversy and your image may be forever tarnished.
Loss of profits
Lower sales are a direct consequence of losing your credibility. People will stop buying your products, and even changing your corporate philosophy might not bring them back. Investors and shareholders avoid having their names associated with problematic companies, so they might back out of partnerships too.
Harming the environment
Although it is often masked as sustainable development, greenwashing doesn’t help the environment in any way. On the contrary, by deceiving customers and masking unethical practices, businesses only strengthen the vicious circle and stop environmental progress.
Promoting your business without greenwashing
If you want to be part of the change and you have a green business, then it deserves promotion and public recognition. However, it’s very important to market it truthfully, without exaggerated claims, and give your customers solid evidence on what makes you great. Here are some ways you can do that:
Make specific, relevant, substantiated claims
Transparency is key in the green business world. No matter what product you are advertising, make sure you backup all your claims with clear, undeniable proof. “Avoid vague language and generic terms that can be misinterpreted”, explains Estelle Liotard, a content marketing specialist at TrustMyPaper and Studicus. “Be careful with buzzwords like renewable, recyclable, compostable, and sustainable. Your content marketers should have a thorough understanding of green terminology, otherwise, they might make false claims without realizing it. From your web copy to your press releases, use plain English that anyone can understand.”
Get a green certificate from a reputable authority
The best way to prove to your customers that you truly are a green business is to obtain certification from a reputable third-party. Because greenwashing is so widely used today and there is no clear legal framework against it, more and more consumers are becoming skeptical, which can affect even the companies that truly are making progress. Sustainability certification for businesses can show consumers that your claims are true and that you really are taking steps towards helping the planet. Contrary to common belief, sustainability certification isn’t just for large corporations who have unlimited resources. Small companies can obtain it too, and the third party issuing the certificate can help them identify the areas they need to focus on to become greener.
Explain your sustainable efforts without exaggerating
Sustainable efforts needn’t be wrapped in buzzwords and fancy terminology. If one of your business processes is green, tell the story to your consumers. Did you change your supplier and now source raw materials from sustainable sources, or deliver your orders on bikes? Write a blog post about it, or post on social media so that followers can see your progress, but don’t make exaggerated claims, because they can turn against you. Don’t worry if you’re not 100% just yet and if some areas still need improvement. It’s not an easy journey, and customers will understand that.
Take the example of outdoor apparel brand Patagonia. Instead of making huge claims, like almost everyone in the industry, the brand’s founder came forward and said that Patagonia is not completely free from problematic processes, but they are doing everything they can to be better.
“Green” is slowly becoming the ultimate aspiration for modern-day brands and striving to achieve the green seal is worthy of praise. However, in the process, you need to be as transparent as possible. Although greenwashing can sometimes look like an innocent cheat to boost your company’s image, it almost always backfires and causes irreparable damage to your credibility.