Green-Acting: How brands talk about sustainability needs to change

By Daisy Hare, 27 February 2023 | 5 mins read

From green-washing to the other extreme, navigating how to communicate sustainability seems to be a minefield even for the savviest of marketers. So which brands are trying to get it right? Let’s explore the difficult area of environmental marketing, and cover everything from green-washing, to green-hushing and what brands really need to do, green-acting. 

Green-washing – the longstanding tradition of environmental exaggeration

Now we all know green-washing = bad. A form of misinformation that’s used by businesses to attract consumers who themselves want to do the right thing, and shop green, green-washing has long been a ‘clever’ (read: underhanded) tool used by brands to target those who are actively seeking out eco-friendly products and often prepared to pay more for.

However, did you know that this isn’t a new phenomenon? Green-washing was a term coined in the 80’s by Jay Westerveld, an environmentalist who criticised the way hotels showcased the “save the towel” initiative and tried to justify it as environmental good, when in fact it was a strategy to reduce operating costs. Quite literally green-washing.

But this misinformation doesn’t just have to be under the guise of brands promising their products and operational activities to be sustainable or environmentally friendly, or talking about carbon offsetting. Just take a look at this advert from Volkswagen in 2015: they hardly touch on what they are tangibly doing to make air cleaner, instead just throwing out a vague claim that diesel is ‘cleaner’. Case in point.

It’s particularly present within the fast fashion industry, with brands claiming a production is green by narrowing a set of attributes and hiding the rest. Or, even more commonly, using unverified taglines or phrases with no inherent significance.

Take, for example, Spanish fashion giant Zara who launched its “Join Life” collection, stating it as eco-friendly and pledging to stop using toxic chemicals by 2020. This approach, much like H&M’s “Conscious Collection”, focusses in on the materials being used which are not nearly enough to reduce its environmental impact when such a large proportion of its activities are hugely damaging for the environment.

And green-washing isn’t limited to giant companies alone – you may have seen many smaller independent brands offering to “plant a tree’ for every order placed, sometimes as a way of negating less admirable ESG outputs.

Brands have been actively pushing communication around their voluntary sustainability achievements but still within the context of a high growth model – two things that rarely go hand in hand. This has led to green-washing on a mass scale, particularly on social media where the practice has come under the microscope. In a reversal of fortunes, social media has allowed consumers to quickly call out this poor corporate practice and it’s now almost inevitable that any green-washing practices will be uncovered; with sometimes catastrophic impact to a brand’s reputation, business and bottom line.

So, what are companies doing in a world where consumers are sovereign, and green-washing will not be tolerated? Green-hushing.

Green-hushing – staying silent on sustainability

An October 2022 report by South Pole showed that one in four companies are still taking action to obtain their ESG targets but have made the decision to keep quiet about their efforts to achieve their targets in fear of being called out on their environmental shortcomings or doing the wrong thing.

Green-hushing is becoming a survival strategy to avoid public scrutiny and making it difficult for consumers to know which brands are being honest about their sustainability.

There are many brands out there who are prioritising and driving their ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) efforts to truly make a change. They are using sustainable materials, they are using zero or no emission vehicles in their supply chains, they are adopting sustainable packaging. Yet, because of green-washing, they are no longer talking about their efforts to tackle climate change in fear of getting it wrong and how quickly this negative attention on social media platforms can spiral.

In essence, the bad guys are making it really difficult for the good guys and the loser in this is the end user or consumer. Consumers are losing clarity of what a truly environmentally conscious brand looks like, and losing the ability to make informed decisions on the basis of a brand’s green activities.

Of course there are brands that have emerged in 2022 as clear winners for transparent communication on ESG topics – Patagonia being the primary example, with Founder Yvon Chouinard transferring the ownership of the company (valued at $3b) to tackle climate change, pumping all of the company’s profits into saving the planet.

Another great example where a business has taken a bold step to speak authentically is logistics company DHL’s recent work on ESG. They are being open and transparent about their work in a way that is informative and interesting, rather than focusing on the big targets which consumers are constantly bombarded, and bewildered by.

DHL are showcasing the changes big and small that they are implementing consistently and with momentum; from the launch of the first all-electric cargo plane to their use of recyclable packaging. Consumers appreciate when brands speak authentically to them, rather than attempting to “hush” over things.

Green-acting: brand action over words

Let’s be honest: neither green-washing or green-hushing helps anyone; and it’s also up to business to step up and play their crucial role in a truly sustainable future. Consumers want and need to be accurately informed and businesses need to be transparent and genuinely play their part in reducing the impact that they have on the planet.

The bottom line? Brands and organisations need to be green-acting, so they can be judged on what they do rather than what they say. To be measured by their actions and not necessarily their words.