Sourceful Blog

How to avoid greenwashing

November 3, 2021

In our last article on greenwashing, we explained what it is, where it started and why it matters. In this article, we'll explore how you can avoid it. Whilst most greenwashing is intentional, sometimes it's not. There might, for example, be innocent gaps in product knowledge or complex ideas that a team member misinterprets. In both cases, a company may then label a product something it's not. That's greenwashing.

Avoiding greenwashing takes some thought, but it's entirely possible and completely necessary. Without genuine marketing around sustainability, truly green brands will struggle to build trust with customers and have the positive impact they want. If you're one of them — established or aspiring — this guide is for you. Here's how to avoid greenwashing.

Use facts not fiction

Greenwashing is about telling fictional stories. So, one way to avoid greenwashing is to tell real stories. And to do that you need facts. Fortunately, it's likely someone, somewhere in your business will have facts you can use. Want to know if a product is 100% recyclable? Ask your product team. If it is, use that information in your marketing. Unsure if your company has sustainability targets? Ask senior management. Get close with the experts in your company who may have useful knowledge, and work with them to discover, and tell, truly sustainable stories. If the facts you find reveal areas for improvement, speak about them in your marketing as well. What's important is that you use facts, and not fiction, to talk about your business. Without them, it's difficult to avoid greenwashing.

Always have evidence

Environmental claims should be objective not subjective. Which also means there should be evidence to back them up. And the evidence you have should be credible and up to date. That could mean referencing a recent, reputable study, or it could mean becoming certified by a third party, like the FSC. Or it could mean simply working with experts for guidance. Not every claim needs a certification, but you should be able to prove or justify everything you say. Below are six questions from The Green Claims Code checklist to ask yourself before making a claim.

  1. Is the claim you're making objective?
  2. Do you have appropriate evidence to support your claim?
  3. Is the evidence based on accepted, proven science?
  4. Has the evidence been subject to independent scrutiny?
  5. Is the evidence up to date?
  6. Is the evidence publicly available and can consumers verify the claims?

Answered 'yes' to all of them? Great — you're not greenwashing.

Champion specific statements, avoid vague claims

Vague claims can mean different things to different people. And that means they're more likely to mislead. When a company makes a vague environmental claim, some consumers may understand, but some will be confused and some will be completely misled. That's greenwashing. Other claims will be so vague that they lose all meaning. What does "eco-friendly", for example, really mean? Without an explanation, it doesn't mean a lot.

When you make environmental claims, be specific. Offer detail at every chance. Avoid vagueness at all costs. Qualify and explain general terms. If your product is made from recycled content, what percentage is recycled content? If your product is compostable, is it home compostable? Being specific builds credibility, educates your customers and helps you avoid greenwashing.

Embrace radical transparency

Many companies greenwash to cover up shortcomings in a marketplace of savvy consumers. This is especially true for brands who want to be more sustainable, but feel they aren't there yet. Transparency, however, is always the better option — even if it reveals your imperfections.

Take Ace & Tate, for example, who recently published an article candidly titled "Look, we f*cked up". In the post, they talk about five decisions that, in hindsight, prioritised the company over having a positive impact; one of which was using bamboo fibre in a new glasses case. Whilst Ace & Tate knew the bamboo would look sustainable, it decreased the case's recyclability. But instead of greenwashing the decision, Ace & Tate made the mistake public and explained how they've fixed it.

Transparency is the antidote to greenwashing. Use it when you talk about your products, your targets, your progress and your mishaps. The reward? An authentic brand, loyal customers and less chance of greenwashing.

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