As global consumers become more aware of the importance of environmental stewardship, there is a rising demand for organizations that can prove their impact in an objective manner. The language used to persuade the public that a business's products, goals and policies are environmentally friendly when they aren’t, even have a name—greenwashing. Claims might be intentionally misleading or unintentionally false or unsubstantiated due to a lack of understanding, but either way, buyers and consumers want clarity.
Greenwashing often looks like bold commitments, superlatives and vague promises of “science-, nature- or evidence-based” solutions without implied figures and proof. Businesses that successfully avoid perceptions of greenwashing use reputable, global reporting frameworks to contextualize their claims. In the U.S. the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) even sets guidelines to prevent these misconceptions called “Green Guides”. States like California, abide by this set use of environmental marketing claims and uses them to hold marketers accountable and protect consumers.
Businesses choosing to mislead with their language do so with a lot to gain. There are financial incentives from government agencies and consumer demand (especially from Gen Z and millennial consumers) for companies that work to support the planet. They fail to recognize that greenwashing can hurt people, the planet and our collective effort toward progress in the long run. It also curbs the efforts of organizations working diligently to encourage environmental protection.
The growing instances of greenwashing also drown out the work of growers who have been and continue to be remarkably shrewd with their natural resources. Growers aren’t likely to boast about the sustainable practices they employ, so there is a danger of their work being overshadowed by brands that are louder and sometimes present themselves deceitfully.
Consumers too are looking to do more than “talk the talk” about sustainability and the Green Guides are a huge piece of that. Citizens across the country are calling for even stricter Green Guides, asking that states publish, clarify and promote these guidelines better. This growing backlash to marketing deception shows just how invested consumers have become.
Noble West Enters the Sustainability Chat
We had a “fire/zoom-side chat” with Noble West leadership to get their insights on the issue.
Question: Let’s chat with VP of Client Services & Strategy Sarah Tjoa, Creative Director Kari St. Arnault and Director of Media + Content Amy Roll. What can brands do to communicate their environmental stewardship right?
Sarah Tjoa: Not greenwashing isn’t difficult. The issue seems to be as marketing teams become more aware of the power of being a “greener” company, comes the desire to leverage that. At the end of the day, it should come down to truth over trends - what can be substantiated and what matters to consumers. And it doesn’t have to be black and white - like many things, it’s a spectrum.
Kari St. Arnault: It all goes back to the data. No faking numbers. You never want to start from a place of mistrust with your consumers. Companies have to give the facts as they are. Millennials and Gen Z especially care about how businesses operate and their thirst for more transparency is growing. This isn’t a trend, this is the new way of doing business. Make tangible improvements or lose your consumer base.
Amy Roll: Yes, to Kari’s point, false marketing stands in the way of achieving real progress.
Question: Some brands want to buck accountability when they are accused of greenwashing. They say they don’t have the necessary tools or the whole picture. Is that fair to say?
AR: There are clear laws and regulations on what can be claimed and communicated to consumers. Risking your long-term reputation for a short-term sales goal is not a good business practice.
Question: How does Noble West partner with brands to ensure environmental claims are clear and substantiated for consumers?
ST: What we can do as marketers is educate about what sustainability is and how it is a spectrum. We don’t give consumers enough credit. We all have more access to data and information (good and bad) than we ever have, so it’s easy to identify what is a soft claim and what is a hard-line practice. Businesses need to be unafraid to say that they are a work in progress. No one wants to say, “It will take 20 years to get there. I have to systematically undo how this business functions.” That would be a more interesting story to tell, to pull back the curtain on sustainability. Saying, “I’m not there, but I’m trying to get there.” If you’re honest with consumers, then you should be able to garner some understanding and educate them along the way about the uphill battle to become a sustainable company.
KS: The area marketers can impact the most is in education and truthful storytelling, as Sarah mentioned. We can get a message out. We can be the conduit. We can deliver truths but the real impact is through tangible change. Too often, businesses want to put their identity before their impact. But by reversing that narrative, we can focus on our impact and let that shape the brand’s identity. And that’s how you can authentically increase brand loyalty.
In the rush to boast excellent stewardship and win over key audiences, more damage can be done than good. Here’s how brands can do better:
Prove your environmental impact in an objective manner.
Remember that substantiating your environmental stewardship doesn’t have to be black and white, it’s a spectrum.
See this as the new way of doing business, not as a trend.
Don’t buck accountability—the laws and regulations are clear.
Recognize how informed consumers are and garner their respect by being a work in progress.
Don’t put identity before impact, focus on your impact to shape your brand’s identity.