The risks of covering your brand in ‘greenwash’

September 2008

Without question, the whole sustainability issue – and of course behind it global warming and the very real threat of climate change – has exploded into the lives of us all in recent years. Also without question, is the fact that many brands have simply jumped on a ‘green bandwagon’ and made all sorts of hollow claims about their sustainability credentials. Many of these claims and the trend they’ve created have lead to a new piece of jargon in the marketing world – ‘greenwash’.

The problem for brands that have simply made these superficial claims and which aren’t deep-rooted in a strong cultural ethos, is that customers and potential customers are likely to see through them. Why? Because consumers and business customers alike are now far more brand-savvy and what they don’t see, the media are highly likely to take great delight in pointing out. What’s more though – and this is where the shift really lies – is that people are starting to actually care and look for ways in their daily lives to ‘do their bit’. This represents a significant social change and one that brands simply can’t ignore and, if they are reacting, they must ensure the changes they make are appropriate and for largely the right reasons.

And when we talk about sustainability in its broadest sense, we are of course also talking about not exploiting people. So the ethical sourcing of product is also wrapped up in the same wide agenda – as a number of high street fashion chains have found to their cost in recent years.

In most cases, making sustainability a key component part of a brand will cost the brand owner money. Good; it should do. For brands which woke up to the reality of global warming many years ago and could see what was coming in terms of a change in consumer and business attitudes, the opportunity was there to use sustainability as a differentiator for their brand. Those that did made their investment pay and good for them (a few also did and perhaps don’t deserve quite such praise – e.g. BP – but that’s another story).

So is it too late to use sustainability as a brand differentiator if you start now? In most business sectors yes, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still do it and for a number of very good reasons:

If you don’t, your customers – be they other businesses or consumers – may well stop buying from you (an increasing trend).

As most business purchasing is anyway increasingly done by procurement departments, more of them will require you to have a sustainability policy in place as a pre-requisite for doing business with you.

Quite simply, you have an ethical responsibility and if you don’t agree with that then it’s debatable that you deserve a viable business in the future…
Let’s assume then that you don’t just yet have that sustainability policy in place but it’s now heading towards the top of your priority list – a few fundamental rules:

Don’t think for a minute that you’ll get away with a few superficial changes – e.g. putting recycling bins in the staff canteen. Yes do that specifically and other things like it, but what we’re talking about here is big internal changes to the culture of the business as, without it, customers won’t see the real difference in the brand they deal with.

Start from the point of view that changes will come from the attitude of you and those you work with. So a different mindset and one which needs to merge with and take on all the things that are already good about your brand.

Be honest about what you’re doing and what want you can’t do. So if you can’t stop a bad practice for practical or commercial reasons right now then say so, but do of course also say when you can – even if it’s in the long term.

Above all, don’t fall into the greenwash trap – you simply won ‘t, nor should you be able to, get away with it.

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