Last year, Vero took the Clean Creatives pledge to refuse contracts with fossil fuel companies, which have become notorious as some of the world’s biggest greenwashers. This wasn’t just a symbolic gesture for us — it represented a clarification of purpose that pushed us to question how we approach our communications practice in general. In doing so, we took a look at our own biases as communicators and found plenty of potential for greenwashing.
According to Joel Makower of Greenbiz Group, some common tropes of the communications industry lead to greenwashing. He names the following:
Making bold commitments; Telling a great story; Using superlatives; Ignoring the critics; Engaging employees; Promoting, promoting, promoting; Using science; Not going alone; Being creative; Planting trees; Thinking local; Being relentless
None of these are bad things, but they’ve become cliches that are easily invoked to distract from an organization’s main operations. Seeking a path of greater candor, we searched for ways to recognize imminent greenwashing and nip it in the bud. We’re calling this approach “greenwatching,” both because it makes intuitive sense and because, like most marketers, we’re fans of catchy wordplay. Like all ESG initiatives, it’s an imperfect and ongoing effort, but it embodies a principle we advocate for anyone promoting sustainability, environmental or otherwise: candor to the point of vulnerability.
Too much of corporate communication focuses on crafting an idealized image that disguises the imperfect realities of doing business in the modern world. We hope to push back against that tendency, at least in this realm where lack of transparency poses a quite literal threat to the world we all share. In doing so, we want to invite our fellow businesses and communicators to explore and adapt this approach to suit their needs.
In the spirit of greenwatching, this playbook offers more of a conceptual framework than a guide to every potential conundrum regarding sustainability communications. However, we’ve included enough practical suggestions that we hope it can serve jointly as a statement of purpose, a useful introduction, and a handy reference for those who share our path.
The environmental crisis in Southeast Asia is urgent and unprecedented
Southeast Asia is one of the most dynamic and fastest-growing regions in the world, but it is also one of the most exposed to the consequences of climate change.
The natural environment that Southeast Asian civilizations have been organized around for centuries is under threat. Tropical storms and flooding are becoming more intense. Unpredictable seasons and excessive heat are lowering crop yields. Rising sea levels are damaging rice fields and swallowing coastlines. Plastic pollution is turning beautiful beaches and waterways into symbols of environmental negligence.
Southeast Asia has not historically been a primary contributor to climate change, but its impact is growing with rising incomes and industrialization. It’s worth reducing this impact as much as possible, but it will also become necessary for Southeast Asian societies to adapt to the changes that climate change will bring. For multinational and local brands operating in Southeast Asia, the need to take action that supports a sustainable future for the region’s people and natural environment is more urgent than ever.
The third wave of sustainability efforts
Many global brands have invested in sustainability, for decades in some cases, but they’ve done so for different reasons. The first wave was largely motivated by reputation at stake, while the second wave was motivated by the desire to avoid legal and economic consequences.
But a third wave has begun, and this one is about necessity.
What’s the emergency?
Consumers in Asia are concerned about sustainability — but they’re unsure what it looks like
According to a study by Kantar (2021), 63% of Asians don’t feel sustainability is their responsibility, but rather that it is up to governments and other organizations. A 2022 survey by Bain & Company concurs, showing that majorities throughout Asia-Pacific place the primary responsibility for helping consumers shop for sustainable products on brands (24-40%) and/or governments (26-40%).
However, in the Kantar study 58% of Asian consumers said they have been personally affected by environmental issues, and that they are most concerned about the specific issues of water pollution, air pollution, and extreme weather events.
Choice of Products
According to Bain & Company, 90% of consumers in Asia say they are willing to spend more on products that are healthier or have a positive environmental impact. Meanwhile, Kantar tells us that 53% of people in Asia have stopped buying products and services that have a negative impact on the environment and society. This indicates there is a large and ever-growing audience to capture — the Bain study points out that 45% of Asia-Pacific’s environmentally, socially, and/or health-conscious consumers shifted their priorities towards sustainability within the past two years.
However, the Bain study also identifies a “say-do gap,” in which consumers rank sustainability as a high priority but in fact rarely buy sustainable products. The study finds several explanations for this, including “a lack of information, a distrust of brand claims, a lack of variety in products, and gaps in availability”. Price, however, seems to be a relatively insignificant factor, indicating that the market is still young and brands’ energy would be better spent on better communication and availability than cost-cutting. Bain notes that young brands which are built around sustainable business models are “leading the way”, while more established brands play catch-up.
According to a study by iStock, recycling is still considered the most prominent way for consumers to make a positive impact on the planet (65%), followed by reusing, repairing, buying second-hand, using eco-friendly products, and making their homes energy-efficient (40%). The lowest interest is in stopping the use of single-use products and making transport choices that reduce use gasoline/petrol/diesel (35%). However, recycling is arguably the least impactful of these methods and the one that requires the least lifestyle change, which indicates that either consumers misunderstand sustainability or they’re not eager to sacrifice convenience for its sake. Thus, brands that can make their sustainable products both easy to understand and convenient to acquire and use stand to reap rewards.
Effective Sustainability Communication is difficult — but essential
The field of sustainability communications has grown rapidly in recent years as companies recognize the importance of addressing environmental and social issues. However, many businesses and organizations still struggle to effectively communicate their sustainability efforts and achievements. This is partly due to the complexity of sustainability issues, and partly because they are not sure how to do so in ways that are transparent, credible, and authentic.
One of the biggest challenges faced by companies is ensuring the authenticity of their sustainability efforts. Even with the growth of ESG investing (accounting for 37.8 trillion USD of assets under management in 2022 according to Bloomberg), it has become increasingly difficult for companies to differentiate themselves from their competitors and for stakeholders to trust their sustainability claims. For this reason, authenticity is becoming increasingly important in sustainability communications. Between the liability of greenwashing and the temptation of staying silent on the topic, some companies are looking for a fresh take on sustainability communications.
The Green Hush
Fear of backlash makes some companies less eager to communicate about their sustainability efforts. According to an article by Eco-Business:
“The negative impact from the threat of accusations of greenwashing can increase the risk of inaction among companies already lacking in confidence when it comes to communicating their sustainability efforts.”
But companies may also fear failure and the resulting scrutiny. From that same article:
“One in three (29%) of all the companies we surveyed said that delivering their net-zero target has been ‘more difficult than expected’ over the past year.”
The Trouble with Greenwashing (and the importance of greenwatching)
Greenwashing is a growing problem that is undermining the authenticity of sustainability efforts. It occurs when a company makes false or misleading claims about the environmental benefits of its products or services or deliberately downplays the environmental impact of its business model.
Earlier this year, the second annual sustainability survey by The Harris Poll found that 59% of executives across 16 countries reported overstating or inaccurately representing their sustainability activities, though many claimed this was accidental.
Greenwashing can take many forms, and the issue has been framed using 7 pillars over the past decade.
Whether or not companies are making ESG commitments or receiving ESG investment, greenwashing is an issue in communications that can be deliberate or unintended. However, more brands are being scrutinized and held accountable for their claims than in the past, so they should be conscious of whether the narratives they promote genuinely reflect their practices.
For this reason, we advocate what we call “greenwatching”: the practice of staying vigilant about whether our communication efforts around environmental sustainability align with the realities of our business practices.
The 7 sins of Greenwashing
The Canadian environmental marketing agency TerraChoice made this list in 2006 by comparing claims made by thousands of brands and products with the reality of their practices. The seventh sin (Worshipping False Labels) was added in the second edition. It has since been used as a guideline by brands and marketers around the world.
No Proof: lack of evidence to back up claims
Vagueness: using generic language that can be easily misconstrued
Worshipping False Labels: use of first-party labels
Irrelevance: claims that are out of date or out of context in a competitive landscape
Hidden Trade-Off: focusing on communicating one positive impact, while failing to communicate associated negative impacts
Lesser of Two Evils: claims benchmarking a harmful product with “worse” products, diminishing its negative impact
Fibbing: straight-up false claims
Employing Greenwatching Strategies for Authentic Sustainability
The impact of greenwashing is far-reaching. The rise of eco-activism and the liability placed on companies caught greenwashing undermines the public’s trust in companies in general, making it more difficult for those engaged in genuine sustainability efforts to differentiate themselves. It also undermines the effectiveness of sustainability initiatives, as stakeholders have difficulty determining which companies are truly committed to sustainability.
Revisiting the sustainability journey with a greenwatching mindset can help you to overcome the green hush. By setting goals, engaging with stakeholders, and reporting with authenticity, you can strengthen your company’s reputation and gain positive engagement from consumers and stakeholders alike.
In doing so, we should keep in mind that sustainability is a moving target: a constantly evolving process of improvement. Companies who are working to be more sustainable should also communicate that reality, including times you fall short of your goals or ideals — and how you plan to improve.
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 won’t 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.
- Do your best to avoid cancelled or delayed timelines like these fashion brands that reset their Net-Zero commitments.
- 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 its performance. Major companies that have initiated such policies include Nike, Unilever, Ikea, Danone, and Vodafone.
Turn leaders into advocates.Once sustainability metrics are incorporated in 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 allow 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 their marketing efforts with their fabric vendor when the latter has significant credentials and brand equity.
- Compete with products and services; converge with sustainable practices.
- Campaign and advocate.Partnerships don’t 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 sells books, women’s empowerment improves business performance, access to water reduces inequality and brings more people into the economy.)
Measure Your Impact — and Report It
- Use third-party verificationto receive 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.
Veja: A Case Study
The French sneaker brand Veja takes authentic sustainability communications to a level that may seem radically vulnerable, but which has proven remarkably popular among their fans. They share both their impressive standards for environmental and social sustainability and the limitations and shortcomings of their business model. In this way, they gain their audience’s trust and clarify their path to sustainability.
Greenwatching : Checking communication materials for the 7 sins of greenwashing. (0 means no sinning, 1 means partial sinning, 3 means clear sinning)
No Proof : 0
Vagueness : 0
Worshipping False Labels : 0
Irrelevance : 0
Hidden Trade-Off : 1
Lesser of Two Evils : 3
Fibbing : 0
Where does your company stand regarding Sustainability Communications?