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Are sustainability policies being misused as a marketing tactic?

| | Caroline Cleary | 11 January 2024

Why ‘greenwashing’ is a red flag for 70% of UK consumers.

Most companies know that they must ‘go green’ to help the fight against climate change and minimise environmental damage - but for a growing number of customers, empty buzzwords just won’t wash.

In 2022, almost 60% of sustainability claims by 12 major UK brands were found to be either unsubstantiated or misleading - according to research from the Changing Markets Foundation.

Figures shared by the UK government itself allege that of 500 websites analysed, up to 40% of businesses’ green claims could be classed as deceptive - so it’s no wonder that seven out of 10 British consumers don’t consider environmental claims by businesses to actually be credible.

So, how can businesses build trust in a sea of misinformation polluted with misleading marketing?

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is when a company falsely portrays a product (or delivery mechanism, such as packaging) as being better for the environment than it really is - often exaggerating its environmental sustainability in an effort to win over eco-conscious consumers. In fact, they may even be doing things that are harming the environment while insisting that they care about climate change.

While there is, undeniably, marketing value in being green, the growing distrust of consumers for brands which bend the truth and conflate figures means that they now expect to see proof. As customers vote with their wallets and consciences in tandem, sustainability must be more than a mere marketing tool.

Businesses need to be cautious about overinflating their green credentials, as consumers aren’t the only ones who are wising up to this damaging practice…

How can I spot greenwashing?

Greenwashing isn’t always easy to spot, as companies will do everything they can to cover up any non-environmentally-friendly acts.
An example of greenwashing came back in 2018 when fast food giant, McDonalds, announced that they were getting rid of single-use plastic straws in favour of offering paper straws instead.

However, not long after in 2019, the firm was accused of greenwashing after it was revealed that the ‘improved’ straws weren’t actually recyclable!

Another more common example tends to come from fast-fashion brands, that in the past have claimed to make clothes from ‘sustainable’ fabrics, but fail to highlight that this only applies to certain clothes or products.

Greenwashing claims to be set alight by sweeping legislative reforms

Regulators are also increasingly aware of greenwashing claims. In fact, new fines are on the horizon which would force companies to eliminate misleading messaging around how proactive a business is in this space.

Under the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill, companies with consumer-facing products and services will face the threat of civil penalties of up to 10% of their global turnover for misleading claims - including greenwashing. Critically, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) will have the authority to issue fines to those breaching the law.

So, while companies across the world may continue to exaggerate their eco credentials or downplay the negative environmental impact of a product to boost sales, they’ll do so at their peril.

Customers and regulators demand clear credentials

It’s critical for businesses to understand that lip service alone won’t draw in savvy buyers, so demonstrating clear credentials is key.

Third-party certifications like Fairtrade, Organic, or Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) can validate your eco-friendly claims. Compliance with recognised environmental standards like these demonstrates a clear commitment to sustainability and helps to build trust with consumers.

By being transparent about your impact, supply chain implications, and plans to change, you can ensure that your business, much like the environment, can continue to operate sustainably.

For advice on how to avoid greenwashing, evidence your commitment to going green, and avoid penalty fines, get in touch today.


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