COMMENT: Don’t be silenced by greenwashing fears

Raw, honest and transparent communications about the environment can make for powerful advertising, says James Edney.

Call-outs of brands overstating or misrepresenting their green credentials in their advertising and marketing is becoming commonplace. Most recently it was Innocent caught in the greenwashing crossfire, with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruling that the company’s latest advert oversold its products’ potential to positively impact the planet. 

Other food brands that have had similar recent experiences include Alpro and Lipton Ice Tea, both of which ran adverts that fell foul of the ASA’s increasingly thorough crackdown on all forms of greenwashing. New guidance on misleading environmental claims and social responsibility has also been published. Tougher regulatory scrutiny has also come from the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) with its recently published Green Claims Code. 

With tougher and more interrogatory regulation, the chances of a cancelled advert turning into a public lynching is a real risk for brands keen to talk about their green credentials and many may stay silent as a result. But it is critical that brands continue to talk publicly about their environmental commitments and achievements in order to maintain the momentum of both their own stakeholders and the wider corporate world.

There is a danger that greenwashing becomes a catch-all term for any business that’s talking about the environment. Some businesses and brands have been accused of greenwashing but are actually doing some great things. Indeed, one of the biggest risks behind the zeal to condemn and criticise is that it could put the brakes on business and brand progress: it stops them from pursuing an environmental agenda because they are worried about the backlash. 

The idea that brands need to be perfect when it comes to their environmental credentials before they speak out is completely wrong. In reality, there must be a gap in terms of where brands are sustainably and where they want to be, and this will drive energy and innovation. If there is no gap, brands are not trying hard enough or are not setting ambitious enough environmental targets. It’s important that brands know they should be striving towards the massive transformation needed to bring climate change under control. 

Some may be nervous about going out with messaging when their environmental ambitions or goals are not totally finished. But it’s fine to speak about an initiative that still needs work, and giving context to the messaging can really help with this. Brands must be honest and talk more about the journey they are on, rather than try and present a rose-tinted version to the public. 

So keep the environmental messaging in the advertising but be sure not to overstate what has been achieved. Brands could even consider working in an honest admission of areas they still need to work on into their advertising creatives. Showing vulnerability and a willingness to learn and change is powerful. It is not the brands staying silent that will avoid greenwashing interrogation, it is those who are willing to have a raw, honest and transparent dialogue. 

James Edney is business development director at Given, an agency for purpose-driven brands.

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