In this Philippine edition of Vero’s greenwatching playbook, we look at the climate change awareness and sustainability efforts of Filipino brands and marketers.
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Climate change presents significant challenges for development in the Philippines, a nation aspiring to achieve upper middle-income status by 2025. In a survey conducted by the Social Weather Station in 2022, nine in every 10 Filipinos admitted that they are already experiencing the impacts of climate change.
According to the World Bank, climate shocks, ranging from extreme weather events to gradual environmental shifts, have the potential to impede economic activities, impair infrastructure, and lead to profound social disruptions.
The government has pledged a projected reduction of greenhouse gas emissions of 75% for the period of 2020 to 2030 and has long required local governments to develop a local climate change action plan. However, the Philippines is heavily dependent on fossil fuels – the largest contributor to global climate change. This fossil fuel “addiction” is deterring the country from securing a livable and sustainable future for all.
In this Philippine edition of the greenwatching playbook, Southeast Asia communications consultancy Vero identifies the major industries contributing to climate change in the country, tackles climate change awareness and actions through surveys and interviews, and offers a conceptual framework for Filipino brands and companies regarding authentic sustainability communication.
Where the Philippines’ carbon emissions come from
The Philippines has not been a substantial source of greenhouse gas emissions historically, but it may contribute more in the future. The country had 1.6 tons of average per capita carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions in 2012, which is far below the global average of 6.5 tons, per data from the Asian Development Bank.
Emissions are rapidly rising. Between 1992 and 2012, emissions rose 3% annually and, between 2006 and 2012, this growth rate accelerated to 4%. More than half of 2012 emissions were from the energy and transport sectors, and the energy sector has been the main source of emissions growth.
The energy sector is recognized as a major contributor to the adverse effects of global climate change, and emissions are projected to quadruple by 2030. The sector faces the dual challenges of heavy reliance on fossil fuels and imported energy and high energy demand.
How Filipino consumers and marketers see sustainability and their role in promoting it
Earlier this year, Vero conducted surveys and interviews with Filipino consumers and communication professionals to understand their perceptions and behaviors related to sustainability.
Filipino consumers’ view on sustainability
Among the participants surveyed, only 33% said they are active advocates of a sustainability cause or movement in the Philippines, with the majority contributing through volunteer work (such as community management, tree planting, and clean-up drives) and social media amplification (such as sharing posts related to the advocacy).
But while only a few have active involvement in sustainability movements, 65% of respondents agree that companies and brands play big roles in promoting environment-friendly practices, as they serve as communication vehicles to aid in informing people about sustainability-related issues. Only 27%, though, believe companies are truthful about their initiatives, with the majority saying companies only ride on trends (38%) and fabricate results (22%).
Perspectives of Filipino marketers regarding their contribution to sustainability
Given the fact that consumers in the Philippines see brands and companies as “communication vehicles” about sustainability issues and initiatives, we interviewed marketing and communication professionals across industries. This approach aimed to gain comprehensive insights into their awareness and initiatives regarding sustainability.
All seven interviewees have clear awareness of sustainability, saying it involves “reducing, reusing, recycling materials,” “maintaining a business process or model without depleting resources,” and “striking a balance between the environment and economy.” However, four of them admitted having no or little knowledge of greenwashing and greenhushing — two terms considered to be some of the biggest challenges to sustainability communications, as tackled in our Greenwatching Playbook published in May.
Interestingly, only one interviewee said sustainability is deeply rooted in the core corporate values, while one said practices are limited to energy-saving and waste recycling. Some respondents added that they don’t put sustainability as a top priority since it’s not currently impacting their businesses.
“Unfortunately, when our customers shop, they usually consider 1) design, 2) quality, 3) price first. Only after do they consider if it is sustainable or not. At the moment, our customers do not prioritize this important initiative,” said a senior marketing communications supervisor of a retail company. “Regardless of the indifference the market has towards this important topic, it should not stop marketers from talking about this truthfully, especially if it is part of the brand’s values.”
‘Greenwatching’ in the Philippines
One of the biggest struggles in mitigating the impacts of climate change and holding major GHG contributors accountable is the prevalence of corporate greenwashing. With brands in the Philippines racing to make their sustainability efforts heard and seen by consumers, many fall into the trap of using bold and grand statements in the way they communicate with stakeholders and the public, eventually (deliberately or not) ignoring authenticity and candor.
In the Philippines, where tree planting activities are the go-to CSR practices for companies (mainly because they provide tangible proof and are good for photo documentation), sustainability practices are often made to sound grander than they truly entail. There have been several instances when private companies and organizations planted the wrong seedlings in the wrong areas or failed to seek recommendations from scientists and conservationist groups, rendering the activities not just ineffective but wasteful. This misrepresentation leads companies off track from the comprehensive, long-term strategies necessary for genuine sustainability.
Several multinational companies with solid presence in the Philippines have been called out for greenwashing and false sustainability claims. In March 2022, activists sent plastic waste back to Nestle together with letters from youth demanding the world’s largest food and beverage company to move to truly sustainable packaging solutions and stop producing single-use plastics.
Here are other examples of corporate greenwashing in the Philippines in recent months. We also tasked our ‘Greenwatching’ bot to assess specific communication materials by involved parties and determine whether they’ve committed the seven sins of greenwashing: no proof, vagueness, worshipping false labels, irrelevance, hidden trade-off, lesser of two evils, and fibbing.
The Greenwatching is an AI bot built by Candide.Ai, based on OpenAI’s large language model and trained with specific knowledge and frameworks for greenwashing analysis synthesized in Vero’s sustainability playbook.
Meet our AI bot, Greenwatching, built by Candide.Ai, based on OpenAI’s large language model and trained with specific knowledge and frameworks for greenwashing analysis synthesized in Vero’s playbook.
1) Shell Pilipinas Corporation’s development of ‘nature-based solutions’
What’s happening: Shell Pilipinas Corporation, one of the largest petroleum companies in the country, announced in May its plan to develop “nature-based solutions” for the country’s environment and natural resources.
What environmental activists say: This partnership may raise conflicts of interest, given Shell’s fossil fuel operations. Environmental activists called it “shameless greenwashing” and urged the petroleum company to stop its fossil fuel expansion and pay Filipinos reparations for losses and damages from climate impacts.
No Proof: The communication provides some evidence to support the claims made, such as the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed between SPC and DENR, and the National Greening Program under Executive Order No. 193. However, it lacks specific details about the projects or initiatives that will be undertaken as part of the collaboration.
Vagueness: The term “Nature-Based Solutions (NBS)” is defined in the communication as activities related to the protection and enhancement of natural ecosystems or projects that improve agricultural sustainability. However, the communication could provide more specific examples of what these solutions might look like in practice.
Hidden Trade-Off: The communication mentions that SPC is “transforming its business to meet its target by avoiding and reducing emissions from its operations and from the fuels and other energy products it sells to its customers.” This could potentially be a hidden trade-off, as it does not specify how these reductions will be achieved and whether there will be any negative environmental impacts associated with this transformation.
2) San Miguel Corporation’s “sustainable efforts” in building the New Manila Airport (NMAI)
What’s happening: San Miguel Corporation released a conceptual master plan for its massive green-designed and future-ready aerocity development in Bulacan in 2022. The development is part of SMC’s Php740-billion New Manila International Airport project, which aims to boost national and local economies. SMC said the project reflects the vision of a modern Philippine city that provides built-in solutions to various socio-economic, environmental, and climate issues, and correct the mistakes seen in many urban developments of Metro Manila.
What environmental activists say: Advocates dispute SMC’s green claims, particularly concerning the New Manila International Airport project, saying it “spells environmental disaster and fisheries collapse in the province.” The location of the airport is at risk for earthquakes since Manila Bay is surrounded by the Marikina Valley Fault System, the Lubao Fault in Pampanga, and the Manila Trench, which are potential earthquake generators. It is also at risk for subsidence, the sinking of the ground’s surface due to geologic or man-made activities, which is aggravated by excessive groundwater extraction.
No Proof: The press release provides some evidence to support the claims made, such as the commitment to restore and rehabilitate the existing mangrove forest cover and clean the rivers surrounding the airport project. However, it lacks specific details about how these initiatives will be implemented and what their expected impact will be.
Vagueness: The term “green urbanism” is used without a clear definition or explanation. This could potentially confuse or mislead readers. The press release also mentions that the airport city will utilize renewable energy and accommodate both traditional and alternative modes of transportation but does not provide further details on these aspects.
Hidden Trade-Off: The press release mentions that the airport city will be properly zoned, with areas dedicated to various sectors, including agriculture and food production, logistics, health and wellness, aeronautics, finance, science and technology, commerce, residences, education, tourism, entertainment, recreation, and government. However, it does not specify how these zones will be developed in a sustainable manner and whether there will be any negative environmental impacts associated with this development.
Why authentic sustainability communication matters
The prevalence of greenwashing impacts how Filipinos now engage with brands and perceive sustainability, undermining genuine eco-conscious efforts and making it challenging for consumers to make informed choices.
With consumer loyalty at stake, brands are now pushed to prioritize clear, transparent, and educative sustainability communication, and eventually bridge the gap between perception and reality.
All sustainability communication in the Philippines and elsewhere should start with a declaration of intent – what the company wants to achieve based on its capabilities and resources. Brands should prioritize transparently sharing information about their environmental, social, and economic efforts, ensuring they focus on substantiated claims rather than making assertions they cannot support.
Genuine efforts, when communicated effectively, not only enhance consumer trust but also inspire active participation. Brands that embrace authenticity in their sustainability initiatives and openly communicate their progress are not only meeting consumer expectations but also shaping a brighter, more sustainable future. As consumer awareness grows, these efforts have the potential to drive widespread change and foster a society where sustainability is not just a buzzword but a collective commitment to betterment.
Moreover, embracing authentic sustainability practices goes beyond mere consumer trust in the Philippines – it contributes significantly to a brand’s long-term viability and resilience. In an era where corporate social responsibility is under intense scrutiny, brands with genuine initiatives do not just survive; they thrive.
Employing greenwatching strategies for authentic sustainability in the Philippines
Effective sustainability communication is difficult — but essential. Between the liability of greenwashing and the temptation of staying silent on the topic, brands often find themselves standing at a crossroads. We listed some strategies for effective communication, aiming to equip brands and marketing professionals with the tools to bridge the gap between intention and action, and transform aspirations into tangible, positive outcomes for a greener future.
Set achievable goals
One way to avoid the appearance of greenwashing is to choose sustainability goals that match your capabilities and ambitions. Here are a few ways to do so:
Set measurable and relevant targets such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, plastic waste, or energy usage alongside social metrics. Such targets should come with clear steps to reach them.
Communicate with simple, focused data points. Thick reports are good for diligence consultants, but most other stakeholders will not be able to digest uncontextualized, aggregated data. Select, organize, and prioritize salient science-based talking points to optimize the impact of your communication. Connect each project or action to specific targets and explain the relevance of those targets to the company’s business model.
Incorporate sustainability metrics into performance evaluations. This will align the interests of executives with the company’s sustainability goals and ensure that they are held accountable for their performance. Major companies that have initiated such policies include Nike, Unilever, Ikea, Danone, and Vodafone.
Turn leaders into advocates. Once sustainability metrics are incorporated into an executive’s career path, maximize their impact by engaging them in PR and thought leadership opportunities such as participation in industry panels and written or video content in trade media that shares their insights and expertise.
Strategize internal change
Companies often go through intensive operational transitions to comply with sustainable standards of business (e.g., B Corp, Fairtrade, LEED, Organic, Rainforest Alliance). These changes require sincere commitment, diligent planning, strong governance, and expert management.
Frameworks of sustainable standards such as B Corp provide a roadmap for evolution, but doing so requires diverting efforts from profit-seeking, at least temporarily. Focusing on assessment, areas of improvement, and leadership engagement allows those efforts to be fast-tracked.
Communicate with internal stakeholders
Sustainability is probably on your employees’ minds, too. Empower them to participate by creating an internal communication and action framework that reflects the desired outcome.
Educate employees about the areas where the company can make an impact.
Inform & explain with clear, relatable goals and milestones.
Engage employees with culturally relevant activities, measure their impact, and share it with everyone involved.
Promote a sustainable ecosystem
Adopt sustainable procurement practices to ensure you are purchasing goods and services that are produced in a sustainable manner. Transparency and sharing go a long way.
Build Industries via cross-promotion. To accelerate the adoption of sustainable practices along the value chain, credit and promote the vendors who enable your sustainable operations. For example, sustainable a furniture brand can co-brand its marketing efforts with its fabric vendor when the latter has significant credentials and brand equity.
Compete with products and services; converge with sustainable practices.
Campaign and advocate. Partnerships do not just provide opportunities for employee engagement — they can also align strategically with your business objectives.
Focus on societal issues that relate to your business and pay it forward by creating opportunities for future business through causes (e.g., promoting education sell books, women empowerment improves business performance, access to water reduces inequality and bringing more people into the economy.)
Measure your impact — and report it
Use third-party verification to receive a trustworthy endorsement that your sustainability claims are accurate, and your sustainability efforts are authentic. This can include certifications such as B Corp or independent audits like the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) standards.
Tailor your reporting and communication with company-specific highlights. Each company has a unique journey to becoming a sustainable business, so you should develop a singular narrative that weaves through both your corporate and consumer communications.
Provide consumers with transparency regarding specific value points.
Present stakeholders with stories of product development as an alternative to the traditional products and benefits pillars.
Report successes, limitations, and failures with equal candidness.
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