30-second summary:

  • From HSBC to H&M, many leading brands have been found guilty of greenwashing
  • Amid the growing climate crisis, consumers have a right to know the true cost of their consumption.
  • Consumers demand brands to places be responsible and transparent
  • Although marketing leaders may not be responsible for their brand’s ESG strategy, they must communicate whether or not the brand can commit to sustainable practices

Edward Coram James: Greenwashing won't wash: How brands should communicate their ESG strategyIt is time marketing leaders were honest about their role in greenwashing. The planet is now set to hit at least 2 degrees of warming. At 2 degrees warming, we’ll see a 17% decline in fresh water, catalyzing global drought and famine, water competition, and the largest mass migration of people in human history. What happens when water and food run short, and millions of people are forced to flee their homes to neighboring countries?

History tells us that it does not end well. We stand to lose the Elephant, the Rhino, the Emperor Penguin, the Polar Bear, and the Tiger from the wild, as well as over 95% of global coral reefs. All within our lifetimes. These are not alarmist, worst-case scenario predictions. We are already living through the greatest mass extinction of species in 65 million years, a crisis of our making. 2 degrees warming, in which all the above and more are applicable, is now looking akin to a best-case scenario.

What role are brands playing?

Many have exploited the Climate Crisis for financial benefit, spotting a trend in consumers looking for sustainable choices, and creating hollow offerings with the veneer of sustainability while continuing with the core of their environmentally destructive practices. HSBC was recently chastised for this by the Advertising Standards Agency, who ruled that their environmental advertisements overstated their eco credentials and misled consumers about their contributions to helping cause the climate crisis. ‘Conscious,’ H&M’s sustainable line, has been criticized for being anything but, and most of H&M’s lines are still fast-fashion, carbon-intensive, and deeply wasteful. Zara, Uniqlo, Nestle, Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and many other globally famous brands have all been called out for similar practices.

So how can brands stop greenwashing, and start tackling the Climate Crisis? The only way this can be avoided is if companies the world over recognize the issue and pledge to make rapid, deep, and systemic changes in response, and be honest and accountable about what they will (or will not) do. Let’s explore how marketers should be communicating about their approach to the Climate Crisis.

How marketing leaders can avoid greenwashing

Customers have a right to know the true environmental cost of what they are consuming. This responsibility falls at the feet of marketing. To avoid greenwashing, brands must be open, transparent, and clear about their plans for sustainability.

Hard truth #1

Yes, you will not be responsible for setting your brand’s ESG strategy. But you should know what your brand stands for, and indeed what your customers value. If you want a habitable planet, then your brand will need to accept short-term monetary hits and often a radical rethink of your business model. If your brand cannot make the necessary changes, don’t lie about it, or pretend that your business is anything other than carbon-intensive, and unsustainable at its core.

We will come on to how to assess whether your business model is compatible with sustainability. But chances are, you’re more focused on what you are communicating to your audience and customers and avoiding becoming the latest brand to fall foul of the Advertising Standards Agency. Once you’ve made your pledges, you will need to create a timeframe and a framework. Moreover, plan for monitoring and communicating progress to remain accountable and provide customers with the up-to-date information they need.

Avoid greenwashing a ‘green manifesto’

At Go Up, we did this by creating a ‘green manifesto.’ This is a short but detailed document that includes all the information on where most of our carbon footprint came from (spoiler alert, it was the big three), and a detailed breakdown of how we can reduce our footprint and achieve net zero, with clear action points and dates for each action point. This document was then sent to all staff. We will also be sending it to all clients.

You should also promise (and action) 6-month updates to staff and customers on how you’re getting on with hitting those targets. Be open and transparent. If you’re struggling with one, explain how and why. People will respect you for this. But don’t use openness as an excuse for missing your objectives. There’s too much at stake. This will give customers the information they need to decide whether they will consume your brand in their own Climate Crisis efforts. This is how to avoid greenwashing at its core.

Hard Truth #2

It is much easier to make pledges that look good on paper but are easy to achieve and don’t add up to the necessary change (i.e., “we will recycle 100% of materials”). Be strict with yourselves.

Hard Truth #3

Time is not on our side, and we cannot afford to kick our pledges into the long grass of “net zero by 2035”. Be ambitious and aim for net zero by 2026.

What to communicate to stop greenwashing

Plenty of marketers recognize the colossal impact that corporations have on the climate crisis and would like to do their part. Brands make big gesture pledges about going net zero while providing little in terms of a road map on how to get there. But there is no point in making pledges unless you back them up with concrete, data-based action.

Take, for example, recycling. Recycling is the best practice and should be a mandatory requirement for all businesses. But, a business that is evangelical about recycling will only reduce a fraction of its carbon emissions. Recycling makes a relatively small impact on reducing our carbon emissions.

Hard truth #4: Define whether your business model is compatible with sustainability. If it is, you must do what you can to reduce emissions. If it is not, you must still do what you can to reduce emissions. But you must also be transparent about your heavy carbon footprint. You should not pretend that it is less environmentally devastating than it is.

As a brand, you need to know whether you can do your part to tackle the climate crisis. To be aware of what you should be communicating, speak with the relevant contacts within ESG or at the C-Suite level to understand whether your brand can change the three big hitters detailed below. If your brand is on the ball, it will be meeting regularly to give updates on your ‘green manifesto.’ Use these meetings as an opportunity to define what you are communicating to your customers.

Is your brand’s business model compatible with sustainability?

You may not know whether your brand can address the following three categories. If not, you must find out, and ensure your consumer knows what your brand is (or is not) doing to reduce emissions.

1) Transport

Transport produces approximately 20% of total global emissions, and most of these emissions are associated with the daily commute. If you lower the number of days that staff is required to travel to a physical office from five days to two, you’ll reduce your transport-related emissions by 60%. Businesses that require staff to make frequent flights abroad, should not.

2) Meat and Dairy

Animal agriculture (meat, dairy, and fish) is one of the most carbon-emitting industries in the world. It is also one of the most overlooked components of a business’s carbon footprint. On the low end of the scale, the UN estimates that animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5% of overall manmade emissions, with Climate Healers estimating the true number to be 87%.

Let’s set aside the identity politics associated with what we eat for a second. No business can be sustainable if it has the farming, producing, or selling of meat, fish, or dairy anywhere within its supply chain.

3) Energy

As with animal agriculture, there is no single agreed figure for how much energy contributes to our total carbon footprint. The most widely accepted number hovers around the 35% mark, making energy one of the leading culprits. The only real solutions here are to:

  1. Switch to a sustainable energy supplier
  2. Implement solar panels
  3. Upgrade your insulation
  4. Move your heating from a fossil fuel boiler to a heat pump.
  5. All the above, together.

Of course, some businesses cannot exist without one or more of the above. For instance, tell McDonald’s that it can no longer sell meat or British Airways that it cannot fly. Simply put, some businesses cannot and will not achieve sustainability. Given the era-defining crisis that we are in, whether or not these businesses should exist is another question for another time.

Hard truth #5

As a marketing leader, you must be up-front about your brand’s ability to meet the above three criteria. Communicate this plan using the framework provided above. If you cannot, you still need to be aware of this and make sure your customers are too. Failing to do either of these is greenwashing.

The climate crisis is coming

There is no ‘clever’ workaround for how we deal with the climate crisis. Making cuts around the peripheries won’t work. Nor will misleading consumers. We just don’t have time to sit and wait for someone else to come up with the solution. This isn’t Hollywood. This is reality. The Monster’s already made its way into the house and is in the living room with us. We’ll either continue to hide under the sofa or roll up our sleeves and join the fight. As a society, as businesses, and as individuals, we will make the great shifts and sacrifices that the emergency demands. We’ll hit our targets and save the world. Or we won’t. And we’ll destroy this home of ours. Either way, choose your side and be open about your intentions and actions.

Edward Coram James is an SEO, Search Marketing, PR, Crisis Management, and Reputation Management expert and CEO of Go Up, a multi-award-winning marketing and communications agency with offices in London and Los Angeles. He is also a passionate environmentalist and surfer. If you can’t find him, look to the Coast!

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