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The very modern problem of Greenwashing | #SustainabilityMonth

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Virtue signalling is by no means a 21st century invention. For decades people have been popping their heads up above the pulpit to loudly add their voices to the genius of the crowd to make themselves look good. It’s good PR, frankly. 

But we currently find ourselves at something of a cultural tipping point when it comes to one of the most common sources of self-serving bandwagoning. I’m talking, of course, about greenwashing.

What is greenwashing?

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It’s only natural to raise a sceptical eyebrow when a brand renowned for its hyper-consumption model starts waving the green flag. Let’s be honest, it’s highly unlikely that McDonald’s is going to “save the Earth” with their plan-based burgers. However, at what point does an environmentally-focused marketing campaign become legitimately damaging?

The Cambridge Dictionary describes greenwashing as an act “designed to make people believe your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.” It’s the consumerist version of that one mate that keeps banging on about having one vegan meal a week despite the fact he regularly drives his Audi to the corner shop to pick up milk.

Essentially, if the company is opening more time and money claiming to be green through advertising rather than actually implementing business practices that minimise environmental impact, it’s part of the problem.

Unintentional greenwashing

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Of course, some greenwashing is always going to be unintentional and could be a result of brands simply not understanding what sustainability actually is. Indeed, a little innocuous PR could be seen as blatant greenwashing to some so it could arguably be seen as a subjective opinion. That’s why some form of guidance is necessary.

Thankfully, last year the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced a definitive crackdown on greenwashed ads. This adheres to the landmark guidance set out by the World Federation of Advertisers that explains how brands can ensure claims featured in their marketing are credible for both consumers and regulators.

The great green crackdown

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Testament to the importance of the situation, 27 brands (representing $50 billion a year in ad spend) have already signed up to follow the global guidance. It focuses on six key rules that all brands should be following if they hope to steer clear of obvious greenwashing:-

  1. Claims must not be likely to mislead and the basis for them must be clear.
  2. Marketers must hold robust evidence for all claims likely to be regarded as objective and capable of substantiation.
  3. Marketing communications must not omit material information and, where time or space is limited, marketers must use alternative means to make qualifying information readily accessible to the audience and indicate where it can be accessed.
  4. Marketers must base general environmental claims on the full lifecycle of their product or business, unless the marketing communication states otherwise, and must make clear the limits of the lifecycle.
  5. Products compared in marketing communications must meet the same needs or be intended for the same purpose and the basis for comparisons must be clear and allow the audience to make an informed decision about the products compared.
  6. Marketers must include all information relating to the environmental impact of advertised products that is required by law, regulators or codes to which they are signatories.

A great green future

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Creativepool has set aside April as sustainability month to help shine a light on the brands doing it right and expose the brands doing it wrong. There are dozens of brands currently making ridiculous claims, Ryanair being chief among them with its preposterous carbon emissions propaganda.

But the future looks promising. While there has been an increase in ads found guilty of greenwashing in recent months (everyone from BP and IKEA to H&M), 72% of brands have said they would actively welcome an enhanced regulation of environmental claims. This is, after all, a relatively new phenomenon and we’re all learning the rules as we go along, together.

For future referencer though, if it sounds like green-coloured bullshit then it probably is. And that adage goes for brands, agencies and consumers alike.

Header image by Beppe Giacobbe

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