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A Brand Builder's Anti-Greenwashing Guide

Shilpa Gadhok, Founder & CEO

A little over a year ago I was completely foreign to the concept of “greenwashing.” I wasn’t exactly sure what it meant or what actions classified as such vs. not. Thankfully, I had a brilliant team who not only educated me throughout our launch process but also worked flawlessly together with our cross functional partners to ensure that we were actually singing the same song that we were playing aloud to our audience. What we knew was that marketing is only ever one piece of the pie – the “brand” encompasses of the entirety of the business, its processes, its go-to-market strategy, its culture, and its people – not just advertising. Understanding this is critical to getting at the heart of how to prevent greenwashing.

Okay, but first, what is greenwashing? Greenwashing (aka green sheen) is a practice when a business or brand exaggerates (or selectively communicates) the business’s current or past practices in order to draw in the appeal from consumers or customers to make their brand or organization seem environmentally friendly or responsible. The variability and scale of the practice ranges from claims on pack to full-blown campaigns across OOH, TV and other media channels.

If you find yourself in a position where your organization is taking steps to be more intentional in its operations and its impact (woohoo!), and you want to ensure your team has the tools necessary to communicate this impact authentically without falling prey to greenwashing allegations, schedule a training seminar with me and read on for my Top 5 Guideposts below.

  1. Have a Brand Purpose and Know What It Is and What It Isn’t. Brand Purposes seem to be all the rage these days, but if we put aside its new identity as a “buzzword” for a moment, the role of a brand purpose is to be a company’s guiding light and compass in how it behaves (internally and externally), what partnerships it may or may not engage in, how it designs its operational processes, the innovation whitespaces it plays in, and ultimately influences a team’s communication strategy. A brand’s purpose should not change at least for many, many years (if that) – it is not a campaign that capitalizes on what is culturally relevant. Identifying and ensuring all employees have a deep understanding of the guardrails that stem from your brand’s purpose is critical in preventing greenwashing. Said another way, the “what is it” is just as critical as “what it is not.” An example: if your brand purpose is to “champion holistic well-being,” be very clear on the specifics – what does “championing” look like and what does it not look like? How do you define wellbeing? What is included and what is excluded? Why? Does your consumer or customer agree? Then – take it a step further. Ensure your company is acting in accordance with its purpose and its aligned definitions across all functional areas. For example, if your company is using the brand’s purpose to guide the innovation strategy but not the brand’s operational processes – you have now opened the door to falling victim to greenwashing. Consistency is key. (For more info on the Do’s and Don’ts for brand purpose read this)
  2. Avoid communicating “impact” points that are not central to your brand’s purpose. Let me elaborate. If you are an established brand, chances are, you have built an identity with your community already – is this information relevant to the way your community views your brand today? Does this feel connected to the equity you have built with your audience? Would it be interesting to them? If you answered “No” to any of those questions – think again before you post or launch. If you are a new brand, make sure the points you are communicating are easily and clearly tied to your brand’s purpose and the identity you are strategically crafting. And listen, I get it.  Many times, there are pressures from stakeholders to communicate far too many points of “interest.” But know this: a lack of focus is the enemy of brand building. It sends you down rabbit holes that you have to dig your way out of later (both expensive and incredibly annoying). For example, a brand is not doing itself any favors if the brand’s purpose is rooted in advancing educational equity, but the direction is to all of a sudden broadly communicate their company’s stance on climate change. While both are notable causes, one helps solidify the brand’s equity while the other may cause more confusion in the process and seem opportunistic if the audience doesn’t readily understand the connection.
  3. Accuracy, Specificity, and Credibility. Let’s make sure we’re communicating facts, folks. With a slew of information available in today’s world, it can get difficult to understand what data is actually factual and science-backed, and what is opinion or hearsay. Don’t fall victim to bad information. Now, here’s where the process begins to require a bit more collaboration and follow through. If you are wanting to communicate a data point or impact resulting from your organization’s sustainability work, it’s worth it to go the extra mile and ensure that the marketing team is aware of a few things. At minimum they should: (1) understand how the data was collected and what is and is not included in the data set (2) think through and scenario plan the nuances of how the data may be interpreted by consumers prior to communicating (could unintended consequences arise? What messaging will best articulate the information simply and honestly while leaving little room for interpretation?) Vague messaging does more harm than good. This is where specificity plays a large role (3) ask yourself, is this data or impact point central to our business or brand strategy? If not, see point #2. And finally, (4) consider citing sources and third-party vendors that verified your data or impact points. The more degrees of separation you can have from self-reporting, the better. All said and done, if you are communicating information to your audience, you are responsible for doing your due diligence to ensure it is factual, specific and verifiable.
  4. Marketing + Sustainability/ ESG /CSR team = Co-Partners. One of the mistakes I often see in speaking with company leaders is they operate their sustainability/ ESG/ CSR teams in a silo from their marketing teams. This does no one any favors. When running a previous brand, I learned quickly that it was in everyone’s best interest that our marketing team was in close communication with our sustainability lead across our communication journey and that at least one member of our marketing team was a part of our internal Green Team. This allowed our marketing team to become educated about and well versed in our company’s sustainability commitments and operational practices. It also fueled strong relationships cross functionally so whenever we were putting together marketing assets that even hinted at sustainability goals or sourcing, partnering with our sustainability and sourcing teams in our communication feedback loop felt like second nature. Operating teams in silos only perpetuates the issue of greenwashing, and you can be sure that consumers will notice the difference.
  5. Carbon offsets / credits – re-think their role in your ESG strategy, and if you choose to engage, don’t highlight that as a “positive” in your marketing. Basically, offsets and credits are another way of telling consumers, “I’m paying my way out of all the not-so-positive things my company does.” And by the way, your money may not even be doing what you think it’s doing. According to this article a recent investigation has found that the offset credits being managed by Vera (the world’s biggest provider of rainforest carbon offsets) were “phantom credits” that didn’t “represent genuine carbon reductions.” So, do your due diligence my friends. Also, marketing this as a positive provides little benefit. Think about it: if you are wanting to talk about your environmental impact, chances are that (1) it is central to your brand’s purpose (see point #2) and (2) your audience cares about it (also in point #2). The audience that cares about your environmental impact is well versed in how much they dislike carbon offsets / credits as cop-outs for companies saying they are trying to the do the right thing while not actually working to do the right thing. If you want to talk about your climate impact – a better method would be to try actually calculating your climate impact and put actionable plans in place to get to your goal. You don’t need to reach your goal on day 1 or even day 100, but work toward it honestly, with some sense of urgency, and don’t buy your way out of it.

Like what you’re reading? There’s more where this came from! Reach out to schedule a workshop or training seminar where we arm you with even more information and tips so your teams are set up for success.

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