It’s not easy being green, but it’s necessary
How to avoid a stain on your reputation
The consensus is clear — sustainable business is smart business. COVID-19 has only accelerated the trend towards sustainability with more people researching the green credentials of brands and spending their money on sustainable products.
But as many businesses have learned, it’s not enough to say you’re doing the right thing for the environment. Greenwashing, which is giving a misleading impression that a product or business is environmentally friendly, can tarnish brands and leave businesses open to litigation. So how do you get doing the right thing right?
Do the research
Before announcing any new green initiatives, take stock of your business-as-usual practices. The Australian government has published good general guides on practical ways you can improve the sustainability of your workplace. It’s also worthwhile to see if there are other industry specific guidelines already available for your business — don’t feel you have to reinvent the wheel.
Doing this research at the beginning will mean you’re aware of any potential problem areas before you move forward and can prevent future PR issues caused by inconsistencies in external communications and internal practice.
Sustainability needs to come from authenticity
We already know that customers respond when brands communicate to them with authenticity. This is especially true with sustainability efforts, which can be met with intense scrutiny.
One example of a business that leads with authenticity is Who Gives A Crap. Starting from an IndieGoGo campaign targeting the issue of inaccessible sanitation, Who Gives A Crap were able to build social and environmental consciousness into the foundation of their brand and business practice. Who Gives A Crap’s toilet paper is made from recycled materials and half of their profit goes into building toilets for those who need them. As you can guess by the name, their marketing is playful and irreverent and appeals to a younger demographic. This messaging hits the target market they want, since Gen Z and Millennials are more likely to buy from brands they align with ethically.
For already established businesses sometimes structural change needs to be implemented in stages. While Officeworks has made missteps in the past, it has improved on its sustainability by implementing recycling initiatives for old electronics (cutely called Bring IT back) and partnering with Greening Australia to plant trees. Officeworks plans to have 100 per cent renewable energy by 2025 and net zero carbon emissions by 2030. More people working from home and a growing awareness of corporate environmental impact has only increased Officeworks’ sales.
Sustainability is not one size fits all. What’s important is finding an approach that is feasible and aligns with your brand identity.
Be careful of misleading your audience
Brands can suffer reputational damage when they’re not able to back up their green credentials, and once trust in your brand is gone it’s hard to get back.
When a business is called out for greenwashing, one of the most common underlying themes is the business made claims it couldn’t substantiate. Often companies aren’t trying to maliciously lie, rather they were overenthusiastic and jumped to communicating green without sufficient research and planning. You need to be clear about the limitations of the product or what your business can realistically accomplish.
It’s also a good idea to check your legal obligations, as greenwashing can come with the risk of legal action. Australian energy company Santos has had litigation brought to them by the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR) for allegedly ‘engaging in deceptive or misleading conduct’. One area of contention is that Santos referred to gas as ‘clean fuel’ and ‘clean energy’ but did not disclose key environmental impacts and is not considering alternative energy sources. Santos also promised that they would be ‘net zero’ by 2050, but ACCR alleged they provided insufficient evidence to make that claim.
Think holistically about the lifespan of your product
Another area that gets businesses into trouble is advertising a product as ‘green’ without proper consideration of how the product is made, how it’s likely to be used and where it will end up.
For example, in 2018, McDonald’s announced that it would phase out plastic straws and cutlery by 2020. It was reported later that the paper straws McDonald’s was advertising as the environmentally friendly alternative weren’t recyclable. Many also pointed out while the straws were paper, the cups were still made from plastic. If there is too narrow a focus on one element of the product that is sustainable, without considering the whole picture, initiatives can backfire and appear tokenistic and insincere.
An Australian company that takes a more holistic approach is delivery company Sendle. Its deliveries are 100 per cent carbon neutral and use packaging that is compostable and reusable. How this works is made clear on the website and includes details about the projects that will offset its carbon emissions each year.
Transparency is key
Unfortunately, there is a lot of cynicism from consumers when businesses or products claim to be sustainable as a result of greenwashing.
What is key to note is that comparative ethical shopping websites and apps, which consumers use to inform their choices, often rate transparency. A lack of public information can be viewed as an attempt to hide bad behaviour.
Businesses that are transparent about their goals and shortcomings will create and maintain trust. Another way to mitigate this cynicism is to employ third party verifiers (like GECA or B Corp) and go through a certification process. Third party verifiers help convey that your business is approaching sustainability in good faith.
Sustainability is an ongoing commitment. This can look like producing annual reports, making environmental targets part of your business plan and having regular check ins on your sustainability goals to make sure that future planning aligns with any previous sustainability pledges. Research shows that the true business benefits of sustainability happen when it is core to your business.
Most businesses won’t be able to become sustainable overnight. But keeping a commitment to transparency and authenticity about sustainability practices is not just good for the way your brand is perceived but ultimately will make you a better corporate citizen.