Amanda Evans – Jumping on the sustainability wagon without greenwashing

Making socially responsible claims about sustainability is all well and good but can those environmentally friendly claims be backed up?

To avoid greenwashing, organisations need to be open and transparent about their plans for sustainability.

Despite rising inflation, consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products. According to a Capterra report last year, 95% of people surveyed considered the sustainability of a product to be important. For brands, these figures are attractive enough to jump on the sustainability bandwagon – but risk losing credibility if unsubstantiated.

A number of recent cases related to false sustainability claims, calls into question whether businesses are making a real commitment or simply greenwashing – making false or unsubstantiated claims about their environmental credentials to make themselves appear more ethical than they really are.

When they are eventually called out – which inevitably they will be at some point – it’s not only their reputation on the line, the financial risks could also be huge. There now seems to be a concerted effort to clamp down on greenwashing. According to the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the much anticipated EU green claims directive has been designed to “have zero tolerance for net-zero greenwashing”. Penalties will be imposed on those violating the guidelines. And last year, France became the first European country to ban fossil fuel advertising. Flouting the new Climate and Resilience Law could see companies being fined up to €100,000.

France has gone even further this year by clamping down on companies using buzzwords like ‘carbon neutral’ and placing strict caveats on its use. Although there is no law against greenwashing currently in the UK, the financial services sector has been identified as one of the biggest culprits and the EU directive could well pave the way for more stringent legislation here. Businesses that falsely advertise products as ‘green’ or sustainable may already be covered by existing consumer protection laws including those that fall within the remit of The Advertising Standards Agency (ASA). A Green Claims Code has also been issued by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

HSBC fell foul of the rulings after the advertising watchdog banned a number of misleading adverts after a series of complaints over posters that appeared on high streets and bus stops in the lead-up to the Cop26 climate change conference in Glasgow. The ASA ruled that any future campaigns must disclose the bank’s contribution to the climate crisis. This is an example of how the ads could mislead customers into thinking that its financing activities have a net-positive impact on the environment.

It’s important that companies employ risk mitigation strategies to counter any claims of greenwashing. If they are choosing to position themselves as “sustainable”, they must be able to back up their claims and stand up to scrutiny.

Honesty is vital when informing consumers about your brand’s sustainability plans and practices. Being specific about  targets and timelines are also important as it will allow  consumers to hold you accountable. Thinking you are cleverer than the consumer is also a big mistake. Using green coloured images of trees and flowers on packaging and ads to suggest you are eco-friendly if you know you aren’t is misleading. A culture of compliance and effective leadership will help avoid falling into the greenwash trap. Verify data with third parties and allocate resources to sustainability initiatives. Back up green claims with data and evidence to avoid compliance issues and build trust. Lastly, using established third party environmental certifications will help with best practice.

One of Jargon PR’s clients who has made sure that their environmental credentials are rock solid and backed up with hard facts is Agilitas. The company – a leading provider of global technology solutions for channel partners, even has a Head of Sustainability to ensure their mission statements are carried through.

On their website, they have clear messaging and explain how they will deliver their pledges. This not only reinforces their credibility, but also makes them accountable to their customers and offers transparency – a vital tool in helping to avoid any potential issues.

Being transparent about green claims is now a necessity to protect reputations that you ignore at your peril.