Risky for brands to ‘hide’ behind lagging greenwash legislation in Asia: Ogilvy sustainability head

Asian firms should look to Europe for cues on how to communicate their sustainability credentials, suggested Andy Wilson, advertising agency Ogilvy’s head of sustainability, at The Conscious Festival in Singapore.

Andy Wilson speaking at The Conscious Festival 2023
Ogilvy's head of sustainability Andy Wilson speaking at The Conscious Festival. Wilson pointed to research that finds that 63 per cent of consumers globally believe that business leaders are purposefully trying to mislead them. Image: Robin Hicks / Eco-Business

Companies in Asia should not wait for legislation that restricts how they communicate their sustainability credentials, and follow European rules that are being introduced to tackle greenwashing, an executive for one of Asia’s largest advertising agencies has suggested.

Speaking at sustainable lifestyle event The Conscious Festival in Singapore last Friday, Andy Wilson, Asia head of sustainability for Ogilvy, said it is “risky [for brands] to hide behind a country’s legislation that may be lacking.”

“The best thing to do is to get ahead of it [legislation], and adopt the strictest protocol that you are comfortable with – probably European or the United Kindom’s,” he said.

Last month, the European Union announced new rules that will ban advertisements that mislead consumers into thinking that a product or service is greener than it claims.

Generic claims, such as “environmentally friendly”, “natural”, “biodegradable”, “climate neutral” or “eco” will be prohibited without proof of verified environmental performance relevant to the claim, among other new rules the EU will introduce to curb greenwashing.

Major multinational brands including H&M, Deutsche Bank, Shell and HSBC have faced legal action for greenwashing in Europe and the United States over the past 18 months, and industry observers say it is just a matter of time before similar legislation plays out in Asia Pacific.

How would you talk about sustainability to children?

Wilson also suggested that corporates take cues from how adults talk to children in how they communicate sustainability to consumers.

“We wouldn’t deceive children. We wouldn’t misrepresent what we are doing [when talking to them],” he said.

“Communication is an innate human skill that requires us to understand an audience. And if we respect that audience and their standards for what is appropriate … then we will start having a mindset by which we can organise our story that doesn’t misrepresent or deceive,” Wilson said.

Companies, he said, are “desperate” to tell their stories of sustainability success – that “we are not as awful as we used to be, and we want to declare that to the world, because it is important to us” – but regular consumers do not see corporate sustainability messaging in the same way, which can lead to miscommunication, he said.

“They [consumers] look at it [sustainability] through a different lens. They may have eco-anxiety. They may be just trying to live from day to day. They may not have the time or mindspace to make responsible choices,” he said.

“They may not have any awareness of what that language is,” he said referring to now-familiar corporate claims such as “net-zero” and “decarbonisation”.

Wilson pointed to 2022 research by Edelman – the world’s largest public relations firm, which is itself facing greenwashing scrutiny for communicating on behalf of fossil fuels brands such as Shell and Chevron – that finds that 63 per cent of consumers globally believe that business leaders are purposefully trying to mislead them.

He also referred to a 2022 study by search giant Google which found that 58 per cent of executives globally believe their own employers are guilty of greenwashing. 

“It’s not just a slap on the wrist – that you’re telling fibs. People are saying they will leave the company or stop buying from them and, more importantly, they are going to spread stories around in social media. So the stakes are high,” he said, adding that the impact cuts across all sectors, and is not limited to just the oil and gas industry. 

Wilson commented on the recent five-minute advertisement by computing giant Apple, in which Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer who played ‘Mother Nature’ grilled the company’s executives on its environmental performance. Some criticised the short film as greenwashing, but Wilson said Apple “went out there” to talk about its sustainability credentials and should be given recognition, at least as “a demonstration of storytelling”. 

“They were trying to do the right thing,” said Wilson, although he acknowledged that in the process of simplifying a “massively technical” sustainability report for consumers, Apple might be guilty of evading or concealing other issues.

Ogilvy’s own research among senior business executives in Asia conducted this year found that more than half (52 per cent) felt that sustainability is important to their customers, and 81 per cent believe that it is important to their own employees – an increase of nine percentage points on last year.

“Whether you’re doing it [sustainability] or not, the need and the demand – often silently – is being thought through by the people you are trying to lead,” he said. “In a previous generation, it was just on the radar. Now it’s a front and centre – it is a massive deal.”

Asia is closing in on greenwashing – slowly – as consumers wake up

Earlier this month, the industry body for the public relations sector unveiled guidelines for how brands can avoid making misleading or unsubstantied sustainability claims in their marketing.

Singapore and Australia have started to clamp down on claims made by the finance services sector, but have yet to legislate against claims made in the wider consumer market beyond finance.

The Australian Association of National Advertisers, a self-regulated body for the country’s advertising industry, is now working on a review of its advertising code to address greenwashing that is expected to be released later this year.

Wilson pointed to five-year-old data that shows that millennials would take a pay cut to work for more responsible companies, and said that Generation Z – people born from the mid-to-late 1990s to the early 2010s – are “even more idealistic and more demanding” of their employers and the brands they consume.

Ogilvy has itself faced criticism for the brands that it works for – none more so than BP, an oil and gas giant it has created communications for since the 1990s, with the “Beyond Petroleum” rebranding campaign that environmental campaign group Greenpeace called out for spending more on advertising than it was investing in clean energy and redubbed “Burning the Planet”.

BP was seen as a global frontrunner for the decarbonisation of the fossil fuels industry - it was one of the first oil majors to commit to net-zero emissions by 2050 – but the company has, like many of its industry peers, shown signs its decarbonisation target will be hard to achieve, as it continues to invest in fossil fuels expansion.

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