In an era where environmental consciousness is on the rise and consumers are increasingly demanding responsible business practice, they expect businesses to be acting ethically and in a way that does not damage the planet. And rightly so.
By Matt Davies, Brand & culture strategy consultant. CEO advisor. Author. Public Speaker. Podcast host. Facilitator
But “sustainability” and “environmental friendliness” have become empty buzzwords. They are expected. As businesses scramble to display their “green” credentials, a cautionary tale emerges—one of greenwashing.
In the echo chamber of internal meetings, deluded marketeers and leaders can begin to believe that their businesses sustainability practices are the ultimate differentiators for positioning their brands. That customers will see them as being special if they push this. But is sustainability something that should be signalled as much as it is being? When every business has an ESG story is it effective to message? And if sustainability is not at the core of the brand proposition, is it worth the risk of pushing a message which may land the brand in hot water?
The Greenwash Predicament
Greenwashing, the practice of exaggerating, over emphasising or, in some extreme cases, falsely claiming, environmental responsibility, has cast a shadow over the authenticity of sustainability messaging. Brands that excessively tout their ESG and green initiatives often find themselves under heightened scrutiny. Any deviation from their proclaimed ethos can result in huge brand reputation damage.
The infamous Volkswagen “clean diesel” emissions scandal serves as a stark reminder of how a veneer of sustainability can crumble under the weight of evidence to the contrary. History tells us the bottom line suffers. Brands caught out about this often hide behind the idea that sustainability is a “journey” as they back track to cover up their (often unintentional) falsehoods.
This begs the question: if you are not serious is it worth it? Is a relentless focus on sustainability truly the key to brand distinction? Does it really help consumers make purchasing decisions and distinguish you in market? Could it lead to the perilous realm of virtue signalling?
The Virtue Signalling Quagmire
The danger of emphasising sustainability to an extreme is the risk of being perceived as mere virtue signalling. Many regulated industries have environmental standards they have to adhere to. So why would a brand operating in such as space emphasise their commitment when, in effect, they have no choice but to conform to regulations. Even in non-regulated industries nearly all businesses will be trying to be sustainable in order to be appeal to their audiences and drive efficiencies. When every brand jumps on the eco-friendly bandwagon, consumers become increasingly skeptical of the sincerity behind these claims.
The knock on effect is then that in a sea of green-emphasising brands, the genuine innovators who are making substantial strides in sustainability may inadvertently blend into the chorus of token environmentalism.
The other thing to consider is if your suitability efforts distinguish you amongst your comeptitors. If they don’t, and being sustainable is typical and expected then don’t over emphasise it. What’s the point? Competitors will simply point to their credentials and you won’t win over customers.
Show. Don’t Tell.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating for a complete abandonment of sustainability messaging. Nor am I saying sustainability efforts should be halted. But I am saying a strategic and thoughtful approach should be considered.
Sustainability efforts should rightly be a part of every business seeking to practice ethically. But the question is whether these efforts are a core part of the meaning customers will attach to the brand or whether sustainability is either an expected norm for every brand in the category or something that is only just being applied by the brand in order to be fashionable. It’s a question of emphasis.
Get this balance wrong and the brand and the meaning customers attach to it, will suffer.
The key lies in asking if sustainability is baked into the brand’s core purpose or values. Is it a key driver of the leadership team. Was it one of the reasons the brand started? Is it something which is a key driver of the business in terms of innovation, products and offerings?
An example of successful and authentic strategic messaging is Patagonia. The outdoor clothing company doesn’t just promote eco-friendly products; it actively engages in environmental activism. By showcasing their commitment to environmental causes through actions like donating a significant portion of Black Friday sales to grassroots environmental organisations or pledging 1% of sales to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment, Patagonia’s sustainability message becomes an integral part of their brand essence - of the meaning people attach to them. It’s something their leadership are genuinely passionate about. They show. They don’t simply tell. And they’ve done this since 1985. It sets them apart. It’s a core part of who they are, why they exist and why customers love them. It is not a ‘tag on’ throw away message.
Learning from the Missteps
Several high-profile examples underscore the need for cautious messaging surrounding sustainability. H&M, for instance, recently faced backlash when allegations of poor labor practices in its supply chain contradicted its proclaimed commitment to sustainability and the ‘score cards’ it was proudly displaying next to products (see Forbes “H&M Case Shows How Greenwashing Breaks Brand Promise” July 13 2022
The optics of such a situation can severely damage a brand’s reputation and erode consumer trust. The takeaway here is that sustainability claims should always be rooted in transparent, evidenced and measurable practices throughout the entire business operation, from sourcing materials to production to distribution. If it’s not in the brands core then the likelihood of falsehood is high and the brand will be found out and be bittern by the Greenwash Monster.
Two Vital Questions for Leaders
Before signing off on brand messaging to do with suitability and the environment here are two crucial questions leaders should ask themselves:
1. Is sustainability intrinsic or superficial to our brand?
Leaders must evaluate whether sustainability is deeply ingrained in the brand’s DNA or merely a cosmetic addition. A brand that is built upon and genuinely integrates sustainable practices will naturally exude authenticity and consistency. If you are honest and, although well intentioned, you know this is a new superficial element to your brand positioning and not something consumers really come to you for then its better to not push this in your messaging.
2. Can we walk the talk?
Prior to launching any sustainability-focused campaign or message, leaders should rigorously audit their supply chain, production processes, and overall business practices. A proactive commitment to environmental responsibility should be backed by demonstrable actions, metrics, data and a willingness to address shortcomings transparently. Can you prove your claims? If you can’t (or are not) walking the walk - don’t talk the talk.
The cautionary tale of greenwashing serves as a reminder that sustainability, though essential to modern business practices, should not be wielded as a mere marketing tool for mass appeal. Brands must balance their commitment to environmental responsibility with strategic messaging that aligns with truth. The path to effective brand building lies in differentiation, distinctiveness and truth - not in empty virtue signalling. It lies in actions that mirror reality and which are valued by customers. It exists in the demonstration of values that build trust, and stand up to scrutiny and in customer experiences that matter.
So tread carefully. The Greenwash Monster is out there. Although tempting to push your sustainability message it could do your brand more harm than good.