Greenwashing And Sustainability In Business Marketing And Communications

Jen Root is the Principal at The Root Effect, a strategic growth agency focused on sustainability and brand marketing strategy.

Sustainability has become more common in everyday business practices, with many businesses shifting toward sustainable practices in recent years.

From my observations, the majority of these shifts have been geared toward climate action, which is good news because the combined land and ocean temperature has risen an average of 0.14 degrees Fahrenheit every decade since 1880 and more than twice that rate since 1981, according to the Annual 2021 Global Climate Report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

I believe the Exxon Valdez oil spill that occurred in 1989 was a wake-up call, as legislation was passed in 1990 in an attempt to make a similar spill less likely. Citizens’ concerns about the environment also started coming together in a big way during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s when recycling programs became a more common, routine occurrence. The shift toward sustainability in business was soon to follow. In the ’90s, the US Green Building Council launched LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, certification standards. LEED is a green building certification program that has become the standard in green energy building practices.

Today, there are a number of companies tackling big problems and “doing sustainability rights.” They are approaching the market from all sides and thinking about the negative impact of current industry challenges and going deep to create a positive impact up and down the supply chain.

Businesses have the power to make a change. And it’s good for businesses to do so, too. By choosing a sustainable supplier or manufacturer, you are connecting better to your buyers, given that sustainability is a slightly or extremely important criterion for 61% of US consumers, according to a 2021 study by Simon-Kucher & Partners. The market is at a real tipping point, and it will be interesting to see who’s on the “green” side of history.

New Business Category: In The Name Of Sustainability

More sustainable businesses have launched with a mission at the core of their market position. This goes beyond your traditional non-profit messaging, as these are passionate founders building businesses around a personal mission. For example, a colleague of my business provides sustainable service ware and offers compostable and affordable plant-based food service solutions. By using agricultural waste, the company has created a circular approach to single-use service ware.

Another example, and a north star to many sustainable businesses, is Patagonia. (Full disclosure: My company is a 1% for the Planet member.) An apparel brand for nature lovers and avid outdoors folk, Patagonia is passionate about its sustainable mission. Its founder, Yvon Chouinard, was an avid rock climber and environmental activist. He got his start creating mountain climbing equipment and selling it out of the back of his car. Now a multibillion-dollar company, I believe the company is also a shining example of a brand that grew from small grassroots initiatives and communicates with transparency, as Patagonia is measuring and sharing its sustainable difference.

In my business, a marketing agency focused on sustainability, and even in my home, we strive to integrate green practices. Through this experience, I’ve seen how important it is to communicate your sustainability goals in a transparent manner in marketing, as well as set your sustainability goals wisely. This can help you not only avoid greenwashing but also ensure your business is environmentally sound and delivers what it promises to be made.

So, how do you get started setting up your sustainability strategy and taking the steps to avoid greenwashing?

Be transparent.

One way to avoid greenwashing in business is by being transparent. Transparency and facts are the two most important communication tactics to avoid greenwashing. Just like good journalism, you should have facts and sources to back up your sustainability claims in your marketing materials.

One step you can take toward transparency is tracking your business progress. Data on efforts such as carbon offset metrics are measurable, and you can track and communicate your progress as you go. Share fact-based knowledge, and acknowledge progress and setbacks when reporting on incomplete goals.

I also recommend expanding your sustainability team to advisors and consultants beyond your core team to verify and create another layer of accountability and visibility. For example, let’s say your company is tracking carbon offsets and working with a third party. In this case, it is advisable to audit annually and work with an objective party that has a strong reporting framework when it comes to sustainability.

Set measurable goals.

Just like setting business objectives and benchmarks for revenue or operational transparency, you should set goals for your sustainability strategy. I recommend an objective and key results methodology to measure and report your sustainable impact, as this method is common in business and cross-team functionality.

To get started, as a founder, think about what you are hoping to accomplish with your strategy. This is your objective. Is there a big problem you are solving? Is it a global problem? How would the world be different from your business or product in the market? From there, create initiatives that will drive your business toward these outcomes.

Along the way, measure your key results based on team-set metrics. Finally, make it a team effort. Have a key stakeholder provide checks and balances to your sustainability strategy.

It takes a team and a movement to keep the momentum moving in the right direction. Here’s to going green responsibly for a better future.


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