Shaken & Stirred - Influential Brand Profiling and Positioning

What Marketers Should Know About Green Marketing and Greenwashing

Do you have a hard-charging client who insists on using his green credentials in marketing campaigns?

But are your client’s products genuinely green?

Greenwashing is when you brand something as sustainable or eco-friendly when it’s not. It’s a dishonest practice that makes brands appear more sustainable than they really are. Getting caught promoting this practice could burn your client’s reputation to ashes and reflect poorly on your marketing career.

What Is Greenwashing?

Businesses know that they can make their products more attractive to consumers if they present their impact on the environment in the most positive way possible. Some brands make fake claims or deceive the public by claiming to be green but not backing up their claims with action.

It’s damaging in many ways. For example, many companies present their office recycling programs or donations to green causes as ‘proof’ of their sustainability. However, they ignore other critical areas like reducing packaging, saving energy, transportation, etc.

What Is Green Marketing?

Green marketing, on the other hand, uses your product or brand’s honest, transparent efforts to highlight its sustainability. It makes it more attractive to eco-conscious customers. If you get it right, it can be a profitable strategy for your client.

Green products or services generally have to adhere to set standards in these areas:

  • Free of toxins and damaging or ozone-depleting substances
  • Recyclable, reusable, or better yet, made from recycled materials
  • Manufactured in a generally non-harmful and sustainable fashion
  • Made in a non-depleting or damaging way to protect scarce resources
  • Designed to be repairable

Companies deeply committed to green principles have a long-term plan. They aim to increase sustainable business methods and decrease harmful practices. In other words, they walk the walk, starting with small changes and ramping up to more ambitious targets.

Customers Can Do Research, Too!

You can deceive the public, but the truth always has a way of getting out. When a company engages in greenwashing, customers eventually catch on. The damage to the company’s reputation can be devastating.

For example, fossil fuel giant BP tried to be greener by rebranding itself as Beyond Petroleum. They added solar panels to their gas stations and made big claims about their green journey. One of their most prominent claims was investing billions of dollars in alternative energy.

But eventually, they were forced to clarify that ‘alternative energy’ means included natural gas-fired power stations. These are less polluting than oil or coal, but still a fossil fuel.

Greenwashing Has Consequences

People passionate about sustainability (and your competitors!) tend to sniff out dishonest marketing practices. Clients who feel that you’ve deceived them won’t go away quietly. Your brand may suffer irreparable harm from such a blowout.

Additionally, your client may be painting themselves as a target. In 2020, the University of Delaware investigated whether a firm’s corporate social performance (CSP) can make it more likely to become a victim of cyberattacks. They found that firms that greenwash are more likely to face problems from hackers.

Hacktivists are hackers who are motivated by social issues or causes. They target companies that cross perceived ethical boundaries. For example, hacktivists recently attacked the World Health Organization because they believed the organization performed poorly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Should hacktivists identify your client as a target, you, as their marketing company, may go down with your client.

How to Deal With a Client That Is Not Green

Marketers are the world’s champions of biting their tongues. They do this when clients have ideas they know will instantly crash the product or campaign. Greenwashing is yet another such field.

Do your due diligence before jumping into a campaign heavy on green foliage and ecstatic free-roaming animals. Point out the devastating effects if the truth should come to light—their competitors will have a field day! Also, use the opportunity to highlight the benefits of going green. It is better for the environment but can also make much financial sense. You may be able to nudge them to stop harmful practices.

At the same time, look at your cybersecurity. Marketers spend a lot of time on the internet and run a considerable risk of cyberattacks. Make a list with routine checkpoints such as: Are my software up to date? Am I exposed via my internet connection? What is my IP address? If you haven’t already, invest in a VPN with a rotating IP function to help you stay anonymous.

Tips on How to Stay Honest Yet Still Sell the Product

If clients cannot reach their competitors’ eco-friendly goals, be frank about what they need to improve. Celebrate small victories. Emphasize other strong points. Mention the everyday things the client does to reduce their carbon footprint without making it a key point.

  • Don’t use generic claims. Words like “100% natural” or “environmentally friendly” mean nothing if you don’t provide proof.
  • Use specific language to provide context for your claims. For instance, terms such as “recyclable packaging,” “biodegradable component,” or “made with renewable energy” give consumers context about how the product or service impacts the environment.
  • Don’t clutch at straws. Don’t emphasize the green score of one small attribute or characteristic if you know the rest is not green.
  • Use images representing the product. Avoid generic ‘green’ stock imagery. If you have photos of employees actively participating in sustainable practices, like using solar panels or packaging their products in recyclable boxes, that’s a bonus.

An Example of Getting Green Marketing Right

Patagonia is an upmarket outdoor wear company. They’re committed to being more sustainable but know they must improve. Their marketing strategy capitalizes on their sustainability mission. They describe it as “a struggle to become a more responsible company.” They’re a great example of how you could gently remind the audience that the competitors are on the back foot.

Marketing isn’t (always) about overt one-upmanship, but your client can discreetly and tastefully challenge competitors to prove they’re doing better. That could create a zinger of a campaign! But beware, this will only work if your client is fully committed to a green future and is transparent about his processes.

A Few Final Words

Some businesses are gradually slogging towards a greener future, but others take shortcuts with false green labels. In today’s connected information highway, false claims always catch up with fakers. The last thing a customer wants to do is spend money with a business that lies about supporting the environment while charging a premium price. Keep this in mind while applying green marketing practices.