A communicator’s guide to mitigating the risk of greenwashing

Angela Barter, CPRP, a sustainable communication strategist based in South Africa, drew from her presentation at the Global Alliance’s World PR Forum (May 2016, Toronto) when writing A communicator’s guide to mitigating the risk of greenwashing

This is the first in a series of original, but WPRF2016-related, posts by presenters (from different countries) on PR Conversations

Over the past decade, the media and the internet have helped create global awareness about key environmental issues, creating a shift in attitude and behaviour change among consumers and investors.

Seeking value and deeper insight into a company’s long-term sustainability objectives and activities, attentive consumers and investors want to know that the company they are supporting is not profiting at the expense of the environment or people (such as employees or related communities). The “green” consumers and investors are so mindful and supportive of environmental related issues, that they will switch brands, even at a higher cost.

This change has prompted many companies to move towards sustainable and environmentally responsible practices, while also changing the way they communicate their environmental ethos and actions to stakeholders.

An unfortunate result is that some marketing (and communication and PR) practitioners promote environmental attributes or “green claims” by means of various media channels, often without any training in environmental processes and issues. Such poorly organised or inexperienced public relations efforts can create inappropriate or inaccurate green claims that mislead the consumer.

Even worse is this practice being construed as unethical under the label of “greenwashing.”

Defining greenwashing and its repercussions

“Greenwashing,” as defined by Greenpeace, is

The act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.”

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) describes “greenwashing” as,

The actions of a company, organisation or government, which promotes environmental practices, whilst acting in a way that is opposite or does not adhere to the claim.”

Sometimes “greenwashing” is not out of malice, but instead due to ignorance of environmental issues and environmental laws. It can also be a result of poorly conceived public relations efforts, which lead to the promotion of false or misleading environmental claims.

The repercussions of exposed greenwashing can cause:

  • irreparable brand and reputational damage
  • negative publicity; and
  • loss of stakeholder trust and investor confidence

Companies also risk facing a court of law if approached by advertising standard authorities in the countries they operate within, such as the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa, which warns against making general environmental claims such as “eco-friendly,” “natural,” and “green.”

Furthermore, the overuse of environmental claims also increases the risk of “green fatigue,” whereby consumers and investors could become disinterested in a company’s messages.

Mitigating the risk of greenwashing

So how does an organisation or its communication professionals go about mitigating the risk of “greenwashing?”

According to the UK’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the true value of environmental claims and marketing rests on the assurance that the declarations are both credible to consumers and reflect a genuine benefit to the environment.

Organisations like Futerra and the American Federal Trade Commission (FTA) help guide companies by means of their Green Guides and Greenwash Guides. Terrachoice, an environmental consultant company (recently acquired by UL, “a premier safety science company”), produced 7 Sins of Greenwashing, which includes:

  • not telling the truth
  • no proof
  • irrelevant claims
  • vagueness
  • “better than” claims; and
  • the use of suggestive green imagery and self-endorsed logos
Stakeholder needs and wants

Stakeholders are seeking honest and responsive engagement with a company in terms of its sustainability initiatives.

Sustainable communication is not a “green spin” on tired old media releases. Instead, it is:

…a results-driven process that not only communicates a company’s environmental initiatives to stakeholders, but also builds proactive, interactive, responsive involvement and dialogue with stakeholders, creating and sustaining relationships that are interactive, consistent and based on honesty, openness and transparency” (E. B.Harrison, 1993 and J.I.Petts, 2000)

“Green” guidelines for communication success

Here are a few guidelines that could help you define your environmental communication messages:

  1. Ensure your environmental claims are based on a specific and genuine benefit or advantage to the environment and can be substantiated scientifically or by reasonable rationale.
  2. Use clear and understandable language, avoiding vague terms such as “eco,” “green” or “natural.” Also, refrain from misleading environmentally friendly imagery.
  3. Be factual, honest and truthful. Don’t imply environmental benefits or make irrelevant environmental claims.
  4. Ensure the communication is consistent with the company’s ethics and culture. For example, choose marketing materials that limit waste and are environmentally responsible.
  5. Be transparent—provide further information regarding environmental claims on your packaging, as well as through your website, your service department or call centre.
  6. Report on the right materiality issues—sustainability reports should go beyond legal compliance.

The codes of ethics of most national and international PR and communication associations make it clear when it comes to members’ obligations to ethical practices, maintaining integrity and accuracy, and not knowingly, intentionally or recklessly communicating false or misleading information. That is the case for the Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa’s (PRISA) code of ethics.

Similarly, the Public Relations Society of America urges its members to:

Re-examine environmental claims to ensure claims are clear, grounded in facts, information and data; and are valid, reproducible and appropriate” (PRSA, 2009)

Moving beyond greenwashing

As communication and public relations professionals, we are in a unique position to shift consciousness and ultimately influence the behaviours, attitudes and perceptions through managing how, when and in what way we communicate.

To function as a key decision-maker and to play an appropriate role in terms of sustainability decision-making and communicating environmental initiatives, public relations practitioners are urged to gain a deeper understanding of both the local and global environment, and the underpinning ethics of a licence to operate.

Communicators should lead by example in becoming eco-champions, influencers and innovators using their immense power to influence behaviours, attitudes and perceptions to encourage environmental stewardship, and to contribute positively to our home, earth.

Angela Barter, CPRP, has more than 17 years of direct experience, and is a widely respected public relations specialist and sustainable communication strategist. She holds a PGD in environmental management from Stellenbosch University (South Africa). Barter is also a GCX qualified residential eco-auditor and carbon footprint analyst certificate. Angela Barter is a highly regarded public speaker at public relations and sustainability events, and has written numerous articles featured in a range of media, including her contribution to the Handbook of Public Relations (10th Edition) by Skinner, Mersham & Benecke. Her work in the field of sustainable communication is grounded in a solid background in classic PR practices and a sound insight into social, economic and environmental sustainability.

Angela Barter is a member of the Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa (PRISA) and a Chartered Public Relations Practitioner (CPRP). Recognised as an outstanding businesswoman with a Nedbank Regional Business Achiever Award, Barter is also actively involved in supporting local charities and contributing through her local Businesswomen Association (BWA) and the local business chamber.

Connect with Angela Barter via LinkedIn or Twitter. Alternatively, contact her by email.

Eco-friendly graphic accompanying this post created by Heather Yaxley.

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4 Replies to “A communicator’s guide to mitigating the risk of greenwashing

    1. Thanks for the comment, Judith (and Russell for his earlier one, including the link to the #CSuitePodcast segment with Angela Barter that was recorded at the World PR Forum).

      Although Angela certainly follows basic principles of PR practice, sustainability (or integrated) reporting is something that her home country–South Africa–is particularly known for (in addition to “truth and reconciliation” programs).

      Benita Steyn, a former principal of PR Conversations, has written a few times on the topic, in particular SA’s King II and King III Reports. Originally I had asked Angela to try and tie these topics in, so we could link to the earlier posts–but the post was already quite meaty, so we decided that it was probably better for Angela Barter to do a follow-up post, down the road, tying in this specific topic of greenwashing with sustainability and South Africa’s integrated reporting requirements, etc. I also didn’t understand her reference to “Report on the right materiality issues” (in point #6), so she’s promised to explain it properly in that second post.

      I agree that she brings great clarity to the topic, including the ethical component if one chooses to indulge in greenwashing. I also appreciated the fact that although she is South African, the departments/companies/associations she cites (and things she links to) are based in more than one country.

      1. Good points, Judy. Yes, I agree that including too much information is overwhelming for this channel. As you said, it’s probably a good topic for another posting. Thanks!

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