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The planet is on fire and greenwashing won’t save it—real actions brands must take

by | Jun 3, 2024 | Public Relations

Sustainability isn’t a new word. Companies have been pursuing sustainability efforts for decades, with more emboldened efforts over the last 20 years. Unfortunately, with sustainability comes greenwashing—a term first coined in the 1980s that acknowledges the false and misleading claims companies make about their environmental impact. 

While neither sustainability nor greenwashing are new, brands still find themselves in hot water over claims made about their environmental impact. In fact, 68 percent of US executives admit their companies are guilty of greenwashing.

As a communicator, it’s our job to ensure our clients are accurately externalizing the work they’re doing—not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because consumers know when brands are lying. On average, 52 percent of people globally reported seeing or hearing false or misleading information about brands’ sustainable actions. 

So how can you keep your brand and the planet from coming under fire? 

Tell the truth, the whole truth

Any Google search on greenwashing is bound to bring up Volkswagen—who famously cheated emissions tests. For years, they used embedded software to outsmart emissions tests, selling the narrative that their cars were better for the environment than they actually were. When they were finally caught, they faced over $30 billion in fines and a reputation that most were sure would never bounce back. 

However, there’s a lot to be learned from Volkswagen’s approach. They admitted to the greenwashing and hired a sustainability task force to fix their business model. They’ve also openly acknowledged that the transportation industry is one of the biggest contributors to climate change and remain committed to working towards net carbon neutrality by 2050

Know when your narratives don’t match your business model

One of the hardest things to grapple with is a business that is working in an industry that is responsible for climate change, but wants to push a narrative on sustainability. As communicators, we don’t always have a say in the business objectives of an organization, but it doesn’t mean we should stay silent. 

If you work in an industry that holds significant responsibility for climate change, such as fossil fuels, industries contributing to deforestation, and manufacturing, you should advise executives to stay away from sustainability narratives. 

This is a serious problem in the fossil fuel industry where companies sell stories that promote methane and hydrogen as clean energy, push anti-electrification campaigns and claim carbon capture is the key to saving the planet. 

If your company or client does significantly more harm than good for the environment, now’s not the time to shift to a greener narrative if the business isn’t coming with it. 

The subtleties matter, too

Protecting your brand from greenwashing goes beyond just words. In fact, some of the most noticeable greenwashing is in a brand’s visual identity. In every gas station in America, Poland Spring, Evian, Fiji and other water bottle companies have nature plastered all over their labels. Yet, 481.6 billion plastic bottles are used in a year and only 9 percent of plastic is even recycled at all. 

If your client or brand produces a product that has a negative impact on the environment in any way, nature should not be a core pillar of its brand identity. 

What does it really mean to be sustainable in communications and in practice?

As a communicator who has worked across a number of industries, I am no stranger to the attempts of executives to greenwash communications. Whether intentional or not, when they see their competitors speaking to sustainability, they want in on the conversation. 

Now that I work in a purpose-driven agency with companies that are actively building sustainable solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems, I’ve learned a lot about what it means to truly be sustainable both in communications and in practice. 

First and foremost, if you’re spreading a sustainability story, it has to be evident across the entire organization. Otherwise you run the risk of consumers and journalists calling you out. Brands that are truly sustainable are implementing efforts across their organization, not just in communications. For example, if you’re spreading awareness on an initiative that is reducing waste, don’t promote it with paper fliers and t-shirts, which ultimately create more waste. 

Greenwashing is a risk for your reputation

While it’s not up to us as communicators to ensure sustainability efforts are met across the organization, it is up to us to ensure what we’re communicating is accurate. We have an ethical and moral responsibility to tell the truth to consumers and journalists alike. 

As so many companies have found out the hard way, greenwashing is a straight path to reputational ruin—one that few companies may find their way out of. Next time your team comes to you with a sustainability story to tell, do your due diligence to ensure it’s one that actually deserves to meet the light of day. 

Kari Porter
Kari Porter is the Associate Director of Communications at Scout Lab, a creative communications agency working with purpose-driven brands in human and planetary health. Kari is a published writer on topics including LGBTQ+ representation and communications strategy as well as a mentor with StartOut, advising LGBTQ+ startup founders.

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