Last reviewed 20 August 2020

Conscientious consumerism looks set to stay — but are environmental claims trusted? Laura King examines how organisations can promote their messages to customers and avoid greenwashing.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors in companies, with market analysis showing that ESG investments have appeared to hold up to the impact of Covid-19 better than their traditional counterparts. Research is also showing that there has been a shift in consumer attitudes towards more conscientious consumerism even though the pandemic has tightened purse-strings for many.

However, despite the desire to make better choices, many customers seem to lack faith in the environmental claims a company is making.

In a recent report by the Capgemini Research Institute, Consumer Products and Retail: How Sustainability is Fundamentally Changing Consumer Preferences a survey of 7500 adults showed that nearly half of consumers (49%) did not believe they had any information to verify the sustainability claims of products, and 44% — which rose to 48% in the UK — do not trust product sustainability claims.

These figures are not so dissimilar to survey results published by the European Commission in 2014. This study found that nearly a third of those taking part (28%) did not think it was easy to assess whether an environmental claim is correct. This then rose to 40% in the UK and nearly half (45%) thought that environmental claims and logos were marketing tricks to increase sales. Unfortunately, despite efforts by many companies to improve their environmental credentials, it would appear that consumers remain unconvinced.

What is greenwashing and who is guilty?

Indeed, accusations and suspicion of greenwashing — defined by the Cambridge dictionary as “to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is” has been around for many years. It was first coined in 1986 by the environmentalist, Jay Westerveld, in an essay decrying the hotel industry’s request for guests to re-use towels as part of an environmental strategy. In fact, he argued, the real motivation was to save money.

Since then, companies have repeatedly fallen foul of accusations of greenwashing, and still do, which perhaps explains the continued mistrust in brands and companies. For example, at the beginning of 2020, budget airline RyanAir was banned from running an ad campaign after the advertising watchdog (the UK Advertising Standards Agency, or ASA) found that its claims of “low CO2 emissions” were misleading and unqualified. In mid-July, airline KLM was also told to change its advertising around its use of biofuel by the Dutch Advertising Code Committee, who ruled that their campaign needed to be re-worded, as the claims were misleading.

With an increasingly sceptical and questioning public, it’s not just misleading advertising that is under fire. The public is increasingly looking at the whole organisation and asking how any one message fits into an organisation’s wider ethos. For example, Client Earth’s #TheWholeTruth campaign against BP is just one high-profile example of where companies are being held to account for all their operations — not just the environmental aspects of their portfolio. Other examples include high street fashion store H&M which has been criticised over its plans to start making clothes from Circulose, a sustainable fabric, when fast and throw-away fashion is seen by many as an unsustainable practice; or tech giant Microsoft who has ambitious carbon targets but in 2019, also announced a major partnership with two of the biggest corporations in the oil industry.

How to avoid greenwashing for products and services

One research study, found that online use of the search term “greenwashing” had increased by 600% since 2017, further supporting the idea that consumers are looking for more information about how they can avoid falling victim to false claims.

Many consumer websites advising the public on how to avoid greenwashing suggest actions such as: being wary of generic terms such as “eco” or “sustainable” that are not backed up; looking to identify brands with strong values, rather than individual products; and being suspicious of brands that sell something without considering its full cycle — for example, how it could be recycled or repaired.

In essence, people are looking for companies that offer a holistic approach to the goods and services they sell, combined with transparent and honest messaging. To dig deeper into any marketing campaign, consider the following questions.

  1. What is the true nature of the goods and services being promoted? For instance, what is the actual impact of the product? Is something being overlooked? An example might be a product that uses recycled materials, but part of the manufacture involves dangerous chemicals. Are any claims made consistent with how the rest of the company operates? How transparent is the company about its environmental practices? Are the messages that are being promoted honest and genuine without any spin?

  2. Can the claim be backed up with specifics? For example, can the claims be measured and quantified? Are the claims verified by a third, independent party? Have other external and internal stakeholders been consulted as part of the process? Are the labels and standards used to verify claims best-in-class?

  3. Think carefully about the communication of messages. For example, could they be misunderstood? How easy is it for someone to check the claim is true? Would someone know where to go to verify information?

What guidance is out there?

The Government’s guidance Make an Environmental Claim for your Product, Service or Organisation is a good place to start. It is based around three principles.

  1. Ensuring claims are not misleading — for example, not implying there is a greater environmental benefit than there is.

  2. Making messages clear and accurate — for example by using jargon-free language and by providing clarity about which part of the business or product any claim is in relation to.

  3. Using data to support claims and making sure this data is current, accurate and publicly available.

ASA will investigate complaints about inaccurate environmental messages. Most claims cite Rule 3 (Misleading Advertising) and Rule 11 (Environmental Claims) of the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct and Promotional Marketing (CAP Code), or equivalent Rules in the BCAP Code for Broadcast Advertising. Among other things, Rule 11 requires that the basis of the claim is clear, based on well-accepted science, justifiable, qualified with evidence and based on a full lifecycle assessment (unless otherwise stated).

In conclusion

In a hyper-connected society, consumers are becoming increasingly savvy and more conscientious when considering what to buy. As such, organisations need to ensure that any claims they make are substantiated. Increasingly, to avoid product hype, consumers are also looking at the entire company, rather than just a product when making purchasing decisions.

To avoid accusations of greenwash, companies should follow official guidelines, but also consider:

  • whether the claims represent the true nature of the product or service, and that any marketing reflects the ethos of the company as a whole

  • how to best support claims with data that is verified by third party accreditation

  • how to make it easy for consumers to check any claims made

  • how to communicate the message so that they cannot be misconstrued.