Ensuring a Sustainable Marketing Effort Doesn’t Greenwash Away

On Earth Day 2022, we are in a moment for sustainable products and companies. The benefits of and consumer support for sustainable and socially ethical practices are tangible. For instance, S&P Global tracked 26 ESG exchange-traded funds and mutual funds (March 2020-March 2021). It found more than 70 percent experienced 27-53 percent growth, outpacing the 27.1 percent average rise of the S&P 500.

On the consumer side, the Global Sustainability Study (2021) says more than one-third of shoppers will pay up to 25 percent more for products that consider people and planet. And some stakeholders are pressuring companies on social and ecological ideals.

Yet it’s not an easy time for green or green communication. Channels are saturated with promises. One false claim can destroy a reputation. Though save the environment is a popular refrain, executives say greenwashing is rampant in the US and globally, a new survey shows.

Vying for consumer attention and increased sales, companies may seek short cuts. For example, some third-party certifications grant ‘green credentials’ without proper due diligence, like the Tested Green scandal, in 2011.

Some companies seek these illegitimate certifications, touting sustainability as an advertising tactic rather than a hard-fought outcome. They label products as 'biodegradable' that actually take years to disintegrate. Or they'll conflate a sustainable offering with a full-scale solution. An example is ‘eco-friendly balloons’ that endanger wildlife.

Naturally, consumers are confused and angry.

Fortunately, some companies have worked hard. They've risen to the twin climate crisis challenge and made a difference.

Below are ways to properly position a sustainable marketing campaign, distinguishing commitment from merely talk.

Actions Speak Louder…

An adage in sustainability, and nearly every corporate social effort, is do the work first, talk about it later.

One of the strongest actions a company can take is a B-Labs audit. B-Corp Certification tells consumers your company is operating with full transparency at the highest social, environmental and ethical global standard.

Certified B-Corp status is a great way to communicate that a company is committed, while avoiding lofty claims or promises.

Communication and Greenwashing 

While consumers are getting better at recognizing greenwashing, it can be hard to differentiate green claims from green actions. Use communication channels to make this easier. For example, act as a resource rather than communicating to achieve recognition or secure sales.

Brands and marketing teams can offer content and ideas for consumers and companies in their surrounding economy. They can provide messages that inform consumers about sustainability from multiple angles.

In addition, they can offer B2B decision-makers information about assessing a vendor’s processes and provide insight on sustainable packaging.

This use of communication emphasizes that the task of establishing sustainable operations is separate from, and more important than, capitalizing on green standards.

On a Local Scale

Make sure you include action at the community level. For example, give employees a day to participate in a park clean-up. Model a sustainable vision of work-life balance; one in which employees have clear boundaries between at-home time and email notifications, and team members are encouraged to take time outside of work to care for themselves and their families.

Obviously these are cultural changes. Leaders must set an example. They should take vacation days, turn off electronic notifications outside of work hours and commit to transparent communication with their teams. In addition, support local small businesses.

All of these are important aspects of embodied sustainability. Not only will they improve your company’s reputation, they'll  ensure business activity contributes to, rather than detracts from, the people around you and the planet we share.

Tara Milburn is founder and CEO of Ethical Swag