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The decade of worthless green initiatives is over: Greenwashing won’t stand anymore

Written by Abbie Morris on Tuesday, 26 April 2022. Posted in Insight, Disruption, Analysis

Sustainability is not only crucial for people and the planet, but for the businesses operating in it. 

The decade of worthless green initiatives is over: Greenwashing won’t stand anymore

Sustainability is not only crucial for people and the planet, but for the businesses operating in it. 

More than ever before, brands are under increasing pressure from consumers, investors, Governments, and potential employees to operate in a sustainable manner. With the discussion around sustainability not subsiding, businesses must act now to become genuinely sustainable and play their part in the fight against climate change.

Companies across the globe are starting to have conversations around sustainability, but it is a hard balance. If a business decides to completely swerve the topic, it risks looking out of touch with modern-day issues. Yet those that choose to engage in sustainability discussions must be careful not to overpromise and underdeliver, as this can lead to accusations of greenwashing.

Using vague language such as ‘natural’, ‘organic’ or ‘eco-friendly’ to describe a product, whilst knowing that not all the ingredients are sustainably sourced, is a form of greenwashing. Alpro Almond milk, for instance, recently had an advert banned after describing the milk as being “good for the planet”. Although Alpro argued its customers would understand the slogan was referring to the fact plant-based products do not harm the environment as much, the ASA said this claim needed to clear and inform customers that’s the reason why the almond milk was “good for the planet”. A study by the Changing Markets Foundation likewise reviewed 12 of the biggest British and European fashion brands, including ASOS, H&M and Zara, and found that 60% of the environmental claims could be classed as "unsubstantiated" and "misleading”.

Further research also found that one in five of H&M’s Ethical Conscious Collection items were made from 100 percent fossil fuel-derived synthetic materials. Although not consciously greenwashing – H&M stated it used a third-party certification system to confirm all materials were sustainably sourced – which highlights how easy it is for businesses to unknowingly engage in misleading sustainability movements. 

In this new world, brands need to be communicating their claims at scale and adapting to new legislation. This is imperative to dominate new and existing markets, to retain and attract talent and ultimately, to thrive in a sustainable economy. The Competition and Markets Authority, for instance, recently reported that more than 50% of UK consumers are taking environmental considerations into account and increasingly seeking to shop sustainably. 

Even the Advertising Standards Authority is getting tougher when exposing inaccurate claims. In 2019 banned a Ryanair ad claiming it was the airline with Europe's lowest emissions, because there was insufficient evidence to support it. Social media, likewise, is holding businesses to account, with dedicated pages such as @mrspress revealing empty sustainability promises made by major fashion brands. 

Put simply, consumer choice is becoming more important than ever, and loyalty is shifting towards those with sustainable values. Brands that ignore greenwashing regulation and do not take ESG seriously will consequently lose out on talent, surrender customer loyalty and fail to survive in the long run.

Change is needed and industry-wide standards must be established to hold brands to account.  This is why sustainability communication is so vital. Last week, the World Economic Forum published a report on the positive impact sustainable credentials can have on business models, products and company value. If brands fail to invest, they could therefore find themselves falling on the wrong side of authorities, and history. 

Issues around sustainability promises are not going anywhere. Businesses have proved themselves to be capable of adapting quickly to outside difficulties and emerge more resilient than ever. Yet, to do so companies need to take responsibility for their downfalls and tackle greenwashing head on. 

About the Author

Abbie Morris

Abbie Morris

Abbie Morris is CEO of Compare EthicsCompare Ethics is a Sustainability Communication platform that enables brands to verify, manager and deliver their sustainable product communications at scale.

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