Having good environmental, social and governance (ESG) credentials have become the expectation rather than the exception. With 73% of new investors preferring to choose investments that support positive change for the planet and its people this has become an essential aspect of creating and marketing any business. Whilst this allows us to put our money where our mouths are, spending and investing in a way that positively impacts our planet; it also has a dark side, with organisations doing all the ‘people and planet’ marketing without actually doing any of the ‘people and planet’ stuff. But consumers are growing wise to it.
Greenwashing is defined by the FCA as ‘marketing that portrays an organisation’s products, activities or policies as producing positive environmental outcomes when this is not the case. When we hear the word greenwashing it is easy to think of the DWS and Blackrock scandals – investment companies that have lied, made promises and misled clients. But greenwashing comes in many different shades.
In the classic greenwashing paper, The Six Sins of Greenwashing, the authors found that blatant fibbing only makes up a small percentage of greenwashing tricks. Much more frequent ‘sins’ are vagueness, trade-offs and not having enough proof to back up claims. These tricks don’t necessarily mean that marketers have masterminded campaigns and hidden figures; there is a good chance that some of this is the ‘result of overenthusiasm’
As well-meaning as some of these organisations might be, we as consumers must learn some simple tricks to spot greenwashing, and as businesses, we must make sure we don’t fall into any greenwashing traps.
Firstly, as a consumer here are some things to look out for:
- Are the claims backed up with easily accessible data?
- Is the language specific and easy to understand? (Words like ‘eco, bio and eco-friendly don’t mean anything without certifications and facts backing them up)
- Are the comparisons made in the marketing comparable – AKA are they comparing apples to apples or oranges?
- If the product claims to be organic or vegan, do they have legitimate certification to back that up?
Keeping these points in mind while we source, shop and decide where to invest will make it so much simpler to make good choices whilst figuring out who we really can trust.
Organisations, being in a relatively new industry, have an opportunity to build brands focused on people and planet, rather than retrofitting policy and marketing. This allows organisations to show potential customers how business can be done, without getting too overenthusiastic and while staying true and honest to core values.
As an organisation, here are 5 steps to marketing your ESG credentials without the green sheen:
- Put your People and Planet policy in place and act on it. This is the most vital step. You can’t market your ESG credentials until you’ve earned them with action!
- Consider certifications if appropriate – it’s up to you whether you want to certify yourself as carbon neutral, and it’s worth doing some research into which certifications are the most legitimate, well known and mean the most to customers.
- Communicate clearly and have all data readily available – if you’ve followed step 1 this should be easy; at this point you’re just showing off all the great stuff you’ve done.
- Be consistent. This is a ‘do as I do’ scenario. If you’re marketing yourself as a responsible company, it needs to run through the veins of your business rather than being an arm of the organisation.
- And finally: be honest. None of us are perfect. Customers are going to be much more drawn towards an organisation that is doing its best and being honest about not getting everything exactly right.
Greenwashing is one of the key risks to your organisation’s reputation, but learning to market ethically is a journey you need to own. Customers and stakeholders will forgive you for not being environmentally perfect, but only if you are transparent and honest about your progress; clearly and accessibly reporting your ESG data. What is really important is that you own what you don’t get right, celebrate your successes and communicate then act on your challenges: that is how change is created.