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Subtle shades: Hidden greenwashing and how to avoid it in 2024

Mimi Brown, Director of Corporate at PR, marketing and crisis management experts The PHA Group understands many organisations risk falling foul of greenwashing without realising it. Here, she explains the importance of transparent messaging and best practice. 

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In the sustainability communications landscape, the spectre of greenwashing looms larger than ever. In fact, recent research by Kantar shows over half (52%) of consumers globally have seen, or heard, false or misleading information about sustainable actions from brands, and last month the CMA announced an investigation into misleading green claims being made across Unilever’s portfolio of brands.

As the majority of FTSE 100 companies remain opaque about their Net Zero strategies, 57% of consumers report feeling frustrated as they struggle to tell which products are actually good ethically and environmentally. Not only does greenwashing cause consumers to feel frustrated and hampers trust, but it also raises the threat of litigation on climate change and false advertising.

The legal realities of greenwashing

As of June 2023 over 2000 cases of climate change litigation globally were recorded by the Sabin Center’s climate change litigation database. Of these, 190 were filed in the last 12 months, with the range of legal arguments against corporate actors becoming more complex.

It is critical for businesses to recognise that getting it wrong not only invites social media scrutiny and media criticism, but it also increasingly leads to legislative penalties and legal repercussions. Directors find themselves in the crosshairs of such claims, and the financial backers supporting these cases are multiplying – with class actions on the rise.

Lack of eco-expertise

Avoiding greenwashing is not always so straightforward: a significant barrier to effective Net Zero strategy lies within the corporate hierarchy.

In a survey by EY of 506 Chief Sustainability Officers, it was revealed that a staggering 33% of UK sustainability leaders and 31% globally identify a lack of climate change expertise at the board and senior management levels as a top-three internal obstacle.

Overcoming these challenges requires a holistic approach that involves both decisive actions and strategic communication.

Without this approach, businesses could unintentionally greenwash as the road to sustainability is paved with good intentions and sometimes unintentional oversights. Donning green-tinted glasses, you may unknowingly engage in practices that inadvertently contribute to greenwashing, from product mislabelling or imagery use to oversights in the supply chain or ingredient sourcing.

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Green by association

Your business may be eco-friendly, but have you scrutinised your entire supply chain?

Many businesses claim to be green, yet their suppliers may engage in environmentally harmful practices. If you’re not examining every link in your production chain, your green credentials might be a mirage.

To overcome this, businesses should ensure that they are engaging in strategic internal communication from start to finish. By implementing a comprehensive green procurement policy, you can ensure that your supply chain aligns with your green objectives.

Sustainability stress test

Internal strategic communications are also key to avoiding making vague or misleading claims, that inadvertently contribute to a greenwashing narrative. Despite having genuinely climate-minded intentions, there is a risk of making statements that might be misleading without realising it.

Through rigorously stress testing your sustainability communications you can ensure they are authentic and accurate. One way to ensure this is through an outside perspective, which can provide valuable insights to help in crafting clear, accurate and truthful messages.

Walk the green talk

Another primary reason brands face accusations of greenwashing is their failure to match words with actions. In recent years, it has become a trend for brands to set impressive sustainability targets, and then quietly move the goal posts, rather than follow through in a reflective and open way.

To build trust and credibility, business must invest genuinely in sustainability initiatives and be honest about what is achievable and what is not. This requires tangible commitments and financial allocations towards green projects and practices.

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Greenwashing rehab

Authenticity is the cornerstone of sustainable corporate practices. Acknowledge that every sustainability journey has a starting point, and setbacks are part of the process.

By transparently communicating missed targets, and past mistakes, while explaining honestly the reasons behind them, brands can build trust in their green intentions. Consumers appreciate honesty, and admitting mistakes fosters a culture of continuous improvement.

The Green journey

Navigating the complex terrain of sustainability demands more than just good intentions. As accusations of greenwashing become increasingly common and the legal landscape evolves, corporations must prioritise genuine action, transparent communication, and an authentic commitment to a sustainable future. By adopting these principles, companies can not only avoid greenwashing pitfalls but also contribute meaningfully to the global Net Zero transition.

More on greenwashing: 

An effective climate economy needs valid remote sensing data

How to celebrate organisational sustainability and avoid ‘greenhushing’

UK ‘greenwashing oil and gas’ with Scotland Acorn CCS approval

Images: Paul Blenkhorn (top) / Giammarco Boscaro / Alexander Shatov

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