A chat with the authors of Sustainable Marketing, published by Bloomsbury Business
Some time ago, we worked on a piece about greenwashing and the harm it can do to the industry on the short and longer term. Too many organisations are still making false claims about their own sustainability, either in the attempt to win a new segment of environmentally-conscious audience or to secure investments from their ESG rating. We believe these brands will not survive for long. It is only a matter of time before more sustainable brands come into the picture and take the centre stage instead.
What started as an interview on greenwashing to support that piece, however, turned into something way more powerful. How can we truly make a difference? What are the brands doing so, and why? Why does it matter to act today, and how can we fight the dangers of greenwashing? All of these questions were answered quite brilliantly below, by a stellar trio of experts on the topic of sustainability.
We did something unusual with this piece. There were too many good words to waste, so we decided to keep every single one. With the beautiful cover image above by Bloomsbury to dominate the top of the article, let's dive right into the topic of greenwashing and sustainability with the three authors of Sustainable Marketing (published by Bloomsbury Business): Michelle Carvill, Gemma Butler and Geraint Evans.
Michelle Carvill, one of the authors of Sustainable Marketing: How to Drive Profits with Purpose
Which corporations are making a real difference on sustainability? How?
When it comes to picking out who’s doing a great job and really making a difference on sustainability, it’s easy to signpost organisations that famously started out with a vocal and sustainable stance.
Indeed we cite them in our book, Ben & Jerrys, Patagonia - but even by their own admissions, these large corporations have their own challenges when it comes to sustainability and balancing people, profits and planet. For example, Ben & Jerrys is aligned with the dairy industry, where there is a whole load of misinformation and unrest, and recently Patagonia discussed the challenges they face when it comes to textiles and waste management, with even one of their chief designers stating that even with their repair and reuse and recycle processes, the most effective way to curb waste is to reduce the range they offer - which of course seems counterproductive for retail organisations.
Both Ben & Jerrys and Patagonia are BCorps - and the BCorporation kitemark is fast becoming the mark of a business serious about sustainability. The beauty of the BCorp is that it engulfs many industries and organisations of all shapes and sizes - and there are now more than 3,500 around the world - from startups and innovative dedicated design businesses, such as Elvis & Kresse (creating luxury handbags, luggage and accessories from unrecyclable defunct fire hose), through to some of the largest corporations in the world. For example, 65% of Danone’s business is now certified BCorp - no easy task given the stringent criteria and regulation required.
My favourite BCorp is probably the disruptive brand ‘Who gives a crap’ - the subscription loo roll service. Not only are they committed to recycled products and fast growing better solutions such as bamboo - but also 50% of their profits goes towards building toilets and improving sanitation. And then there’s Tony’s Chocolonely - another BCorp, not only providing delicious product, but acting responsibly, on a mission to educate consumers and shine a light and end the modern slavery associated with the chocolate industry.
BrewDog is a organisation that has recently acquired BCorp status - and their founders are very vocal about their intent to not only reduce their own carbon footprint, but to remove far more than they emit. Their latest venture, The Lost Forest, will have a significant impact on regenerating land and improving harmful carbon impact. You can look at any of the BCorp organisations and find inspiration - which stretches far wider than simply one area of sustainability. These organisations are founded by people who aren’t just looking for a kitemark, but are genuinely concerned with ‘good business’ and a focus on the triple bottom line. And of course, there’s enough research and findings out there to showcase that good business is good for business.
How do you create sustainable marketing campaigns?
You don’t really ‘create’ a sustainable marketing campaign. And if you do, you’re in serious danger of ‘greenwashing’. The reality is, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear - and when you try to, by aligning with a brand, organisation, or ‘purpose’ that doesn’t really ‘fit’ with who you are - then it becomes very evident. And even if it’s well intentioned, if it’s not coming from the ‘heart’, then to consumers you risk it coming across as disingenuous.
For a lot of organisations that start out with sustainability at the heart of what they do, with a focus on people, planet and profits - then they naturally have great stories to share - they’re not creating a ‘sustainable marketing campaign’ they’re simple sharing what they do, the impact they make - marketing becomes a natural progression of what the organisation wants to be known for and seen as - it’s not a campaign, it’s brand story. So my advice would be to answer those big questions first before you think about creating a campaign - questions that answer why do we exist? What impact are we having on the world? Have we lost our way and how can we genuinely make a difference?
It's not about a campaign, it's about a brand story
Whether you started out with a bigger purpose at the heart of what you do - or whether you’re exploring how to get back on purpose, or indeed totally reverse into purpose (it’s all doable), it’s understanding your starting point and where you want to get to and mapping a path forward. And those that are transparent about their progress and their intent - ‘we got it wrong and this is what we’re doing about it’ - as James Watt, CEO of BrewDog has communicated, they win trust, along with the hearts and minds of their audiences. As the urgency for making a positive impact on climate change and broader sustainable goals intensifies, organisations don’t need any more ‘campaign posturing’ - they need to take action and start thinking about these deeper, bigger purpose issues right now!
What is the most common form of greenwashing?
Generally, greenwashing is when organisations are seen to be making misleading claims about products, services and environmental practices. However, how these are actually done come in many forms and unfortunately most forms are increasing and becoming more common practice as the pressure grows on business to show that it is taking action and working towards a more sustainable future.
Examples of ways in which greenwashing is presenting itself include promoting only your sustainable products or services when you know that either the majority of, or a large proportion of what your organisation does, is having a damaging impact on the environment. Similarly, investing in sustainable practices as a way in which to distract from the more unsustainable practices is also greenwashing.
Mislabelling is another common form of greenwashing, there are multiple labels being used that look like the official and accredited labels, when in fact they aren’t. Organisations are increasingly using terms such as ‘eco’, ‘natural’ and ‘environmentally friendly’, with little or nothing that supports or substantiates their claims. Terms such as ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ are used on plastic products. These terms are marketed in such a way that they come across as being more sustainable, however if you actually look into what these terms mean, you will see very quickly that biodegradable and compostable products unless placed under specific conditions, do not break down. The conditions in the ocean do not equate to the conditions required to biodegrade biodegradable plastic, so we are in fact still adding the problem.
Finally, another form of greenwashing is passing the responsibility onto the consumer. A study revealed that when the European ban on single-use plastics was announced some organisations re-labelled single-use plastic cutlery and plates as ‘reusable’, firmly placing the onus on the consumer to wash them up and not throw them away. A large drinks manufacturer came out defending a campaign which was designed to change behaviours and drive people to recycle their bottles. They stated their bottles were 100% recyclable so actually it was on consumers to recycle them to avoid them being ‘single use’. Social marketing campaigns which drive behaviours can be extremely effective in delivering positive change, but they also face being called out as greenwashing if the organisations behind them are not making responsible changes to their business in order to reduce their impacts.
How has greenwashing evolved over the years?
I have noticed more recently that greenwashing has gone beyond the consumer and something which we associate with, marketing, ads, labels and what your website claims. As sustainability is now a key requirement on which to secure funding from investors, known as ‘sustainable finance’, claims are being made that organisations are using greenwashing within their ESG reports, using language and data in a misleading way so as to present themselves as more sustainable than they are in order to secure investment. Examples of organisations securing funding from investment include tobacco companies, mining companies and some of the world’s largest carbon emitters. It is through these types of organisations appearing on ESG rankings recently that the issue of greenwashing in relation to finance and investment is now under investigation. The Securities and Exchange Commission in the US even announced they had created a ‘Climate and ESG Task Force’ in the ‘Division of Enforcement’ to investigate further.
How can we and consumers spot (and stop) greenwashing?
Organisations need to be more open and transparent, however a critical part to enabling this is having a set of metrics that businesses have to report against, much like financial reporting. Currently organisations are not required to report on their sustainable development plans, and those that do are able to report in any way they choose. This makes it very difficult for all parts of the stakeholder chain to understand if an organisation is indeed doing what it says it is doing and, it makes greenwashing all the more possible.
Sustainability is a highly complex issue and it would be far better if businesses acknowledged this and were more transparent on what they are actually doing when it comes to their sustainable agendas. As in previous answers to these questions, organisations such as Patagonia are calling themselves out, unfortunately the majority are not.
Organisations such as Patagonia are calling themselves out. Unfortunately the majority are not.
Education is critical when it comes to sustainability, the environmental crisis impacts every single person on the planet, so people need to educate themselves and take the time to understand the issues. With multiple reports stating that consumers want to engage with more sustainable brands, they need to take the time to look at what is behind the ads and the claims so they can make informed decisions. Consumers can familiarise themselves with what labels really mean, and terms such as compostable and biodegradable so they can avoid being misled. They can go onto an organisation’s website or google them in relation to the claim / ads they are using, or look on social media. Organisations are consistently being called out for making false or half claims, so it doesn’t take long to find out if what you have been told is in fact greenwashing. The only way to stop greenwashing is for society to disengage with those brands who do it, as ultimately those brands will continue misleading, if it helps to meet their business objectives.
Why is greenwashing harmful? How can organisations walk away from it?
While the pressure to compete is understandable, we believe it is inherently flawed for a number of reasons stated above and is far riskier than actually taking a truly more sustainable direction in their own strategy. Consumers are increasingly savvy and able to quickly see through any attempts to greenwash a brand that is clearly not embracing it in their DNA. In the medium term we believe less and less of these brands will survive at all, so this is not a risk worth taking - the time can be better invested in improving and becoming more sustainable.
The first place to start the journey away from this is with an open and honest appraisal of where a brand and company is at the moment, and agreement at a board level - led by the marketing lead in more and more cases - that a company wants to undertake meaningful change and begin to improve in all areas of its practice.
Why do you think some adopt greenwashing despite its risks?
The focus on sustainability from a customer perspective is clearly growing. No longer just the preserve of a younger consumer inspired by the likes of Greta Thunberg, being more environmentally concoious is arguably now important to the vast majority of a company's consumers. This is, in part, an explanation for why brands adopt greenwashing tactics unfortunately - in an effort to keep up with their competitors endeavours in these areas, to keep up with perceived consumer demand. This however is entirely counterproductive as greenwashing is increasingly focused on and called out on social media and in physical demonstrations. A brand doing this has nowhere to hide moving forward.
Is it really that difficult to be sustainable today?
Evolving your global operations to be more sustainable is hard for many companies, but is achievable - and there is no difficulty in making practical improvements from today. We don’t pretend that every company can be perfect in what it does, and we don’t believe this should be the starting point, but focusing on practical aspects such as paper-use reduction or removal and using digital means instead (as we’ve all become used to now!), reducing office waste in the form of non-recyclable materials - plastic cups in the water machine, not offering split recycling options, or not providing washable cutlery and plates to staff are all low-cost options to begin to look at - they will in fact save significant cost over time!
Outside of that - as well as wanting to understand more on the area of sustainability as marketing professionals, in writing the Sustainable Marketing book we were determined to provide some practical advice and a framework for companies and their marketing leaders to follow, and it is clear there are a lot of very practical ways that a company can be more sustainable on a larger level. A lot of this begins with looking at the company's supply chain approach, including how, why and where it sources material for manufacture from. Looking at the end-to-end process we recommend companies use this as a way to make improvements that mean this has a lesser impact on the environment - can you reduce the amount of transport needed in your logistics operation? Can you use more sustainable materials in products? Can you reduce the waste created by your point of sale / packaging materials? The answer to all of the above is yes - it is not easy, and in some cases it does involve complex management of partners, process and stakeholders, but the fact it is being done by some of the most successful brands in their category is evidence it is possible.