Green washing? Communicate about sustainability vs reputational damage

At Empact, we can be annoyed by people who repeatedly say that a sustainability claim is incorrect. Certainly, greenwashing is an issue that needs to be addressed. But if too many companies hide their green ambitions precisely because they fear being accused of greenwashing, opportunities for change are lost. After all, the sustainability transition is not a matter of right and wrong, but of doing. So do you have green products, services, plans or ambitions? In that case, communicate them outwardly, but be honest.


The importance of a green and fair image

Your image determines how customers, investors and policymakers view your company or brand, and is therefore a decisive success factor. Important values that you want to radiate as a company include reliability and durability. What many companies struggle with is the best possible combination of these two values in their image. In other words: how do you communicate your sustainability performance as convincingly as possible in an honest way? If you are too careful about this, you run the risk of being seen as a laggard. And if you make unbelievable claims, you are untrustworthy and can be accused of greenwashing. Where lies that thin red line?

What is greenwashing and what is it not?

Greenwashing is consciously pretending to be greener than you are. So it’s a way to improve your image with deception. It’s a serious corporate sin, just like falsely accusing a company of greenwashing. After all, if it turns out that you have not been honest about sustainability, from that moment on you are not only less reliable in the eyes of many, but also less sustainable. Not good for your image, and bad for your business.

A textbook example of greenwashing is Shell with their campaign on CO2-neutral petrol. An absurd-sounding claim, of course, which the Dutch Advertising Code Committee quickly banned. It is bizarre at all to portray yourself as sustainable as one of the largest polluters in the world.

A textbook example of what greenwashing is not is the accusation against Dopper that they are not so sustainable after all because there is plastic in their bottles. It is true that it contains plastic, but that plastic is 100% recyclable, unlike all those PET bottles. Furthermore, sustainability is woven into Dopper’s DNA, so it is difficult to say that they ‘pretend’.

Our sustainability advisors are happy to help you find a way to communicate your sustainability performance to the outside world in a sincere and effective way. Here are three tips to help you on your way to communicating honestly and effectively about sustainability.

Tips for making green claims without being accused of greenwashing

Only make claims that you can substantiate

It is important that you can provide evidence that supports the green claims you are making. Not only will your claim be more convincing that way, but if you do end up being accused of greenwashing, you can explain why it isn’t. For example, have a life cycle analysis (LCA) performed for your products, and refer to specific results from this analysis in your communication. Think of the number of kilograms of plastic that you save or the tons of CO2 that you do not emit.

Make claims relevant

In addition, make sure that the sustainability claims you make also relate to the product for which you are making them. For example, at energy companies you often see that they advertise green electricity and green energy, but that only a small part of the energy they supply is actually green. Banks also have a habbit for this. When opening an account, you will see windmills everywhere on the homepage, while in the meantime a large part of your money goes to coal-fired power stations.

Keep your communication up to date

It is also important to realize that the sustainability transition is an evolution, not a revolution (despite it being sometimes referred to as such). So the world will not become sustainable overnight. This is a process. Technologies that are necessary for a 100% sustainable life are still under development, and we cannot yet use them (competitively). Think of hydrogen, high-quality recycled plastic and all kinds of artificial intelligence. At the same time, much more is possible today than ten years ago.

Making your company more sustainable is therefore a process. What this means for sustainability claims is that they can also be overtaken by time. What is currently ‘green’ may be outdated in a few years. However, this does not mean that you should not communicate that 30% CO2 reduction in your logistics chain from last year, because you are afraid that it could be seen as greenwashing in some time because it is no longer relevant. Just don’t leave it for ten years. Let your communication move along with your sustainability journey!

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