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Guilty of greenwashing? This guide helps companies avoid making spurious sustainability claims

Be wary of companies whose sustainability claims come out of their marketing departments, say the people behind the Guide Against Greenwashing.

Is your organisation guilty of greenwashing? A new guide can help companies avoid making inflated claims about their sustainability credentials — and any backlash from increasingly sceptical consumers.

The Guide Against Greenwashing was developed by Norwegian sustainable business non-profit Skift and has the backing of European business networks, environmental group World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the former chief executive of Unilever and sustainability luminary, Paul Polman. 

It aims to steer corporates away from unjustified or unsubstantiated claims of being “green”, “sustainable”, “eco” or “fair”.

The idea for the guide came from an opinion article written by a group of activists who criticised an electronics company, Elkjøp, for running a “green weekend” sales promotion that had no connection to sustainable products.

The activists, who included Ida Pernille Hatlebrekke, sustainability and commercial manager at sustainable packaging firm Looping, challenged the business community to clean up its act. Now, what started as a Norwegian campaign in June is going international.

There’s a risk that sustainability will lose its meaning.

Bjørn Kjærand Haugland, chief executive officer, Skift

“The concept of sustainability has moved into marketing departments in many companies,” said Bjørn Kjærand Haugland, chief executive of Skift. “If a product or service is pitched as sustainable, it’s easier to sell.”

Haugland noted that more companies are making green claims, often without justification, and consumers are now more sceptical of brand claims. This puts a premium on honesty in marketing and communications.

“Sustainability has to mean something. There are few products or services that are genuinely good for the planet. Companies claiming to be green need to able to tell consumers why they are sustainable,” he told Eco-Business.

Companies can pledge their support for the greenwashing guide campaign by placing their logo on its website. More than 200 companies have done so. Most are Norwegian firms. International brands include Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Haugland said that greenwashing is a global issue, and it was important for multinational companies to get on board as they set the global business agenda. 

The guide’s 10 principles for avoiding greenwashing are:

1. Be honest and accountable.

Be careful of using words like green, sustainable, recyclable, eco- and fair, without both explaining and documenting what your company has done or will do to make sure this statement can be verified. Avoid using pictures of pristine nature, green leaves, windmills or happy workers to come off as more sustainable. When marketing your product or service, do not use results from reports without context. 

2. Make sure that your company’s sustainability efforts are not limited to your communications and marketing departments.

Companies that continue with business as usual, but employ a marketing strategy focusing on sustainability will end up as greenwashers. Aim for a holistic approach on sustainability.

3. Avoid talking about the importance of sustainability, nature, the climate and ethical trade, if your company has not made serious efforts on these issues.

It is nice to raise the pride flag, mark International Women’s day, wear a United Nations Sustainable Development Goals pin or share #blacklivesmatter, but it will appear hollow if this is the extent of your commitment to sustainability.

4. Do not downplay your company’s own emissions and negative impacts on the climate, nature and human lives.

It is better to admit being a part of the problem and focus on what could be done to become better. A good plan and clear goals will be appreciated by the public. Most people cheer for those who do their best.

5. Don’t use a big share of the marketing budget on small measures that do not affect your company’s footprint significantly.

If marketing is focused on the five per cent of your product range labeled as “sustainable”, but the remaining 95 per cent is causing harm to the climate, environment and people producing them, you should have concrete plans of changing that ratio drastically.

6. Avoid buying a clean conscience through carbon offsets or by letting others clean up ocean plastic.

Businesses that take sustainability efforts seriously start by working on their own footprint.

7. Use established labelling, or work towards the establishment of good labelling mechanisms in your industry if it is lacking today.

The use of labels of established certification frameworks make it easier for both people and businesses to make informed choices. The use of labels to mislead is not advised.

8. Be careful using terms such as “better for the climate, nature, and the environment”.

Almost all production of goods and services affects the biosphere negatively. If there is no concrete documentation of how a product could be deemed “better”, it should not be marketed as such. 

9. “Cherry-picking” from the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals can lead you astray.

The most important sustainability goals are those that have the closest link to the company’s core activities. If the production line emits big amounts of carbon-dioxide, or violates human rights in another country, you should avoid marketing the work done on equality in your home country.

10. Donations and sponsorships are great, but not proof that you are working on sustainability issues.

Focus on the company’s core activities, rather than listing donations to a respected organisation as the company’s effort towards change. Align your products and services to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement.

Haugland said that oil and gas firms stand out as the most prone to greenwashing, as they have faced the most pressure to move away from climate change-linked fossil fuels.

In their marketing, oil and gas companies have avoided talking about oil and focused on the “green elements” of their portfolios, spuriously communicating natural gas as a clean “bridge” to renewables, he noted.

Norway, Haugland admitted, has struggled with the dilemma of being a highly sustainability-conscious country and also a major exporter of oil and gas.

However, Haugland said it was unhelpful to single out the oil and gas industry. “We all burn oil and gas as consumers. So it’s a little bit unfair to point the finger.”

“Our core message is that nobody is perfect. We don’t only want the best companies to sign up [to the greenwashing campaign]. We want companies to sign up to acknowledge that this is important, and get better at how they communicate,” he said.

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