February 26, 2024

Sustainability marketing has now become more difficult and better.

I’ve been around sustainability/purpose long enough to witness the growth of ‘greenwashing’ infecting marketing, but also to develop some ‘immunity-boosting’ strategies against it. My greenwash shots are needed more than ever as the heavy hand of regulation is about to crack down on unsubstantiated eco-claims. Just when more consumers than ever want to know that you are taking issues like climate, plastic and pollution seriously. It’s time to make marketing that matters.

Although greenwash dates back many decades, the term itself was coined by environmentalist Jay Westervelt in the 1980s after noticing an upscale, fast-growing hotel in Fiji asking guests to reuse their towels to reduce damage to marine life. That noble plea obscured the fact that the hotel’s construction destroyed local ecosystems and that “it all ended up in greenwashing.”

At the same time, oil company Chevron’s “People Do” campaign was all over American TV screens, touting the company’s commitment to protecting adorable endangered species. The criticism came loud and fast, and the new term ‘greenwash’ was born. It would soon be levied on DuPont, for their 1991 ad featuring seals clapping and dolphins jumping in apparent applause for the company’s environmental initiatives. I recommend looking it up online, it makes for an exciting viewing experience.

The hard truth is that the business community – whether intentionally or not – ‘greenwashes’ because green sells. This was true as far back as the early 1990s, when 77% of Americans surveyed said a company’s environmental reputation influenced what they bought. And that’s even more true now: my company, Futerra, conducted research showing that 88% of people in the US and Britain want brands to help them be more environmentally friendly and ethical in their daily lives.

It took a while for regulators to catch up. But the last few years have seen an explosion of new laws and restrictions that try to control the way companies talk about their environmental performance:

● In a milestone move, the EU Parliament just passed a law that – among other things – bans companies from making misleading or unsubstantiated green claims, such as “eco-friendly,” “eco-friendly,” “natural,” “recycled,” and “biodegradable.” Claims of being ‘carbon neutral’ are not allowed if they rely on carbon offsets, and claims about a product’s sustainability must be realistic. These terms are not completely banned, but you better be confident in your evidence.

● On the other side Europeadvertising for fossil fuels is outright banned: in France, Amsterdam, Somerset and most recently Stockholm. I predicted this trend years ago and expect oil and gas advertising to go the way of tobacco.

● In the UKthe Advertising Standards Authority has just banned an advert from Toyota promoting their environmentally damaging SUV using images of flowering forests and rivers. Background images and ‘implied’ environmental benefits are in the spotlight, not just specific claims.

● In Australiathe Australian Association of National Advertisers has proposed stricter rules for advertising green claims, including the need for evidence and a ban on vague or misleading claims.

And the responsibility does not lie solely with brands. Advertising agencies are increasingly being forced to acknowledge their role in perpetuating climate damage. For example, the UN-backed Race to Zero is now inviting agencies to identify their clients and take responsibility for the ‘advertised carbon’ impact. And expectations for transparency are only increasing, with initiatives such as France’s Publicité Responsable inviting companies to sign a public ‘responsible marketing contract’.

The demand for sustainability and purpose-driven marketing will only grow as the environmentally conscious Gen Z and Alpha generations grow, but the problems are not simple and the consequences are serious.

So what’s a marketer to do?

My assumption is that you are an honest marketer with an honest product. (If you’re looking for tips on how to get around the rules, you’ve come to the wrong place!). But even with good intentions, everyone can unintentionally greenwash. Here’s the most important thing to remember: most greenwashing is a mistake made by good marketers, not malicious attempts to mislead.

Morality is not a protection against error.

So the first and most important thing you can do is Learn the rules inside and out. Check the latest rules in your home country and keep an eye on regulations emerging worldwide. It’s worth seeing the whole picture, to know where things are going. Invest time and hire experts so you and your team can stay on top of these rapidly changing rules. And test your agency’s knowledge of the latest regulations.

But the best prevention of greenwash isn’t just knowing the rules: it’s about changing your approach to making ‘claims’ in the first place.

a claims mentality puts your feet on the road to greenwashing. You’re already ready, trying to polish your product/brand, trying to ‘get’ something. Seeking environmental claims is the same extractive approach that creates environmental problems in the first place.

What if you stopped asking your consumers to applaud what you do? Most people don’t like doing that anyway. Stop heroizing your brand and start heroing the people who matter: your consumer.

The very best sustainability marketing is not about you, but about the impact your consumer makes. She is the hero.

Take Renault’s ad for their ZOE electric car. The real residents of Appy, a remote French village, despite their insecurities (“will he climb the hill?”), make an electric car for the first time – and become the first village where everyone drives electric. The residents – a father with his teenage daughter, a rural family, a man who works in the quarry – are the main characters in the story, the journey to sustainability is their own journey.

Or IKEA’s ‘Climate Action Starts at Home’ campaign, which opens with: ‘you have the power to make a difference from the moment you wake up’. The film shows how IKEA products can help you to waste less food, use less water, minimize your electricity use – and celebrates the impact of these choices, not the green specs of each product.

Every person is more interested in a story that casts them as the hero, and not as a faceless brand. So help your customer become a sustainability hero. Show them the difference their choice makes; celebrating how they’ve stopped pounds of plastic or carbon from harming the planet. Stop claiming and start helping.

Make sure your sustainability marketing is about what really matters: making sustainable choices accessible and exciting for everyone, everywhere.

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