The New Shades Of Greenwash

  • 12 months ago
  • 5 Minutes to Read
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Companies could face fines of 10% of their global revenue under new UK greenwash legislation. Let’s put that into perspective… a quick web search shows that Shell’s total revenue in 2022 was $381bn USD meaning they could be fined $38100000000 (that’s a lot of 0’s!).

What are the new shades of greenwash and how do we spot them?

Well, greenwashing plays on the willingness of consumers to live sustainably and diverts attention from bad environmental practices. It’s a marketing ploy that tricks us into thinking that products or companies are more sustainable than they actually are. 

What we often see is that greenwashing could be avoided with awareness and insight. We all know sustainability is complex, and so is marketing – especially in an economic downturn when departments are under pressure to generate more visibility and lead generation. Yet our perspective is that occasionally there is an intentional promotion of environmental stewardship that simply doesn’t exist. 

This isn’t the first time we’ve written about greenwash and given the scale of the challenge, it’s unlikely to be the last.

There’s great insight to be found on LinkedIn (if you can wade through the noise), and something that caught our eye in the past few weeks was this report from the financial think tank, Planet Tracker. It likened greenwashing to ‘the Hydra’, a many-headed serpentine beast from Greek mythology, where cutting off one of its heads would generate two more in its place. 

Planet Tracker’s report outlined six forms that greenwashing is taking:

1. Greencrowding. This is clever. It relies on safety in numbers and happens when different groups (like governments, organisations and companies) join forces to effect change. For example, eight of the world’s biggest 20 plastic polluters are part of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. Ultimately, the group moves at the speed of the slowest player.

2. Greenlighting is when companies spotlight a particularly ‘green’ product or operation leaving everything else in the shadows. Commonly seen in the car industry, recent BMW campaigning highlights the company’s electric vehicles, despite being heavily invested in combustion engine vehicles.   

3. Greenshifting shifts the blame onto consumers. BP’s “Know your carbon footprint” campaign is a key example, it invited customers to share pledges for reducing their individual emissions. But BP’s core business continues in climate-wrecking oil and gas. 

4. Greenlabelling happens when companies use words like ‘eco’, ‘sustainable’ or related wording or symbols conveying green messaging with no evidence to support it.

5. Greenrinsing is where companies change their sustainability commitments or targets before achieving them. Repeatedly, Coca-cola has missed and moved its recycling targets. Between 2020 – 2022, the company dropped its targets for using recycled packaging from 50% by 2030 to 25%. 

6. Greenhushing happens when companies deliberately underreport or hide green credentials to evade scrutiny. Common with banks, fossil fuel companies and asset management firms that make distant net zero targets but do not report on progress. It allows them to hide the fact that they are not taking meaningful steps.

This TV ad from Shell is a classic form of Greenlighting. Showcasing fields of wind and solar farms focused on renewables claiming to have “improved the future for our children” without any mention of fossil fuels. Yet between 2010 and 2018, 98.7% of Shell’s investments were in oil and gas.

Greenwash under scrutiny.

The term greenwash was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986. It’s taken 36 years, but the world is waking up to the smoke and mirror tactics used by companies to continue profiting from planet destruction. This includes the regulators. 

The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is the market regulator for consumer protection. In September 2021, it launched its green claims code to help businesses better understand how to communicate their green credentials without misleading consumers. A new ‘digital markets, competition and consumer bill could grant the CMA power to issue hefty fines for companies caught in the act. And the sums aren’t trivial. Up to 10% of global company turnover and individual fines up to £300,000, ouch!

The EU is also cracking down on greenwash and drafting its green claims directive. This will also impact British businesses selling to the European market.

How can marketing turn the tide on greenwash?

As an agency, purpose is the very essence of our being and we want to collaborate with those who share this ambition. We turn down work for ethical reasons and try to inspire other agencies to ask deep questions before saying yes or no to marketing opportunities. One of those ways of us trying to be a positive force for change is the creation of our  “At what cost? Purpose checkers”. 

We know that things aren’t always clear in terms of right or wrong. Especially with the perspective that we need the biggest businesses in the world to change the quickest. And if they can’t work with experts – how will they credibly transition? In our work, we want to continuously learn, generating feedback loops that help us avoid getting caught in unintentional specific sustainability traps.

At Enviral we’re exploring the Sustainable Marketing Compass, the brainchild of Alexis Eyre and Paul Randle after 50 years in marketing. It’s a strategic framework which places the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) and their guiding principles at the heart of marketing. 

We know that marketing hasn’t historically had the most positive impact but we also know that marketing has the power to drive behavioural change for the benefit of people and planet. We see this in brilliant organisations like Purpose Disruptors, Creatives For Climate and Conscious Advertisement Network. These groups add continuous value and show how creatives can use strategic knowledge to drive change and ensure the future habitation of people on our beautiful planet. Deep… but we had to say it.

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