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Sustainability is a megatrend that has dominated the media over the past couple of years. We’ve seen movements from the likes of Extinction Rebellion and environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, who have publicly scrutinised climate issues.

It can then be all too tempting to hop on sustainability communications. However, in the age of social media – where two-way communication means consumers are in control of conversations about your brand, this can be risky.

If your brand doesn’t have the sustainable actions to match their communications, this is known as greenwashing. So, what exactly is greenwashing and how can you make sure you avoid it in your marketing communications?

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing involves everything from fast-fashion brands pushing sustainability lines, to oil and gas firms injecting a pop of green into their advertising.

But to define it officially, greenwashing misleads consumers through a disparity between the symbolic and substantive environmental actions of corporate-level activities, as well as marketing communications.

Where do we see greenwashing in PR?

Greenwashing in PR is when you spot a brand jumping on proactive opportunities for global recycling day, or launching a sustainable hotspots campaign, without having the CSR (corporate social responsibility) credentials to back it up.

This happens with a lot of brands, from energy companies claiming they sell ‘cleaner energy’ products, to fast-fashion giants bringing out ‘sustainable’ fashion lines by using the plastic waste they’ve created. Our top tip? Look out for buzzwords such as “greener” and “eco-friendly”.

Why is greenwashing a bad idea?

In the era of social media, consumers have the power to discover and share pretty much anything they want about a company – warts and all! You just have to look at the famous oat milk brand that went viral recently; it was revealed that one of their investors was investing in infrastructure projects linked to deforestation.

Many studies have shown that when companies use sustainable marketing communications which don’t align with their values, this can cause higher scrutiny. In fact, numerous studies reveal that increased greenwashing activity negatively correlates with brand attitude and purchase intention.

Greenwashing can actually cause more backlash from the consumer regarding the sustainability efforts of your brand. This can cause way more harm than good, as 1 in 3 consumers state they stopped purchasing from brands because they had ethical (or sustainability-related) concerns about them!

How to avoid greenwashing in your campaigns

First thing’s first, you should always make sure you are fully aware of your client’s sustainability efforts when you are planning a PR campaign.

If the brand leaves a lot to be desired, then you should avoid moving forward with campaigns that largely focus on sustainability. Otherwise, there is a big risk of negative word-of-mouth their brand image, as well as consumer trust.

So, ask yourself:

  • What are your target audience’s ethics and are they likely to scrutinise green marketing efforts?
  • Is the campaign relevant and does it align with your brand ethics and corporate activity?
  • Do you have the sustainability efforts to back up your message in case of negative word of mouth?

All in all, sustainability should be all about what you’re doing and not what you look like you’re doing. Basically, don’t make it all foam and no beer!


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