Greenwashing: Do’s and don’ts in communicating your impact accomplishments
On a beautiful autumn day in Amsterdam, the Benelux B Corp community came together for the first time in three years. A perfect Thursday afternoon to network, learn and discuss. The room was bustling with ambassadors of many diverse B Corps, with the pleasant, missed-for-so-long noise of chit-chats. What awaited them? An afternoon full of inspiration on this year’s very topical and timely theme: Greenwashing.
Tessa van Soest, Executive Director of B Lab Benelux, opens the day and emphasizes the importance of the topic of Greenwashing. “Your goal as a B Corp is not only about avoiding the risk of being accused of greenwashing but to actually become a force for good. We all are not in this for the marketing game.”
So, what is greenwashing? Why is it harmful? And how do you, as a company, avoid it?
Keynote speakers: If you want to avoid misleading consumers, avoid generic and absolute sustainability claims.
Keynote speaker Hiske Arts, campaigner at Fossielvrij NL explains why they are suing KLM for their advertisement claims of ‘’flying responsibly’’ and ‘’CO2-Zero’’. She believes that there are two harmful aspects of greenwashing. What is being said, and what is not being said.
Generic terms such as ‘’responsible, green, sustainable’’ and even absolute terms such as ‘’CO2-Zero’’ often cannot be supported by facts, which is misleading for consumers when used in advertising.
– Hiske Arts, Campaigner at Fossielvrij NL
However, she says, ‘’greenwashing is also about what a company does not say. You cannot leave out information that a customer needs to know in order to make an informed decision about the product. Now, if you think: but my intentions are good, I want to do good for the world! I say to them: the question of whether you are greenwashing is not about your intention, but it is defined by how your claim is likely to be understood by the consumer.’’
Key takeaways for you as a brand:
- Don’t use generic or absolute claims in your advertising, especially if you can’t support them with an explanation.
- Give the whole story, don’t conveniently omit certain information.
- Step into the shoes of your customer; how do they interpret your claims? Is that what you want to bring across?
Keynote speaker Stan Veldhuis, lawyer at Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM), explains the regulations and guidelines on greenwashing. ACM recently investigated the vague and generic claims of Decathlon (‘’Ecodesign’’) and H&M (‘’Conscious’’), with success, because these claims are now no longer used. He explained five rules of thumb for using sustainability claims in advertising:
- Make clear what sustainability benefits the product offers.
- Substantiate your sustainability claims and keep them up to date.
- Avoid vague comparisons with other products: ‘’greener than…’’.
- Be honest and specific about your company’s efforts.
- Make sure that visual claims and labels are useful to consumers, not confusing.
Panel: Communicate your sustainability accomplishments and goals in a credible way
With those insightful points in mind, we moved on to a panel, where multi-disciplinary experts shared their thoughts:
- Niki Kauffmann-Schilling (Head of Innovation & Sustainability at Rituals)
- Wim Vermeulen (Researcher & Director of Strategy and Sustainability at Bubka)
- Stan Veldhuis (Lawyer at ACM)
- Martine Doppen (Campaigner at Reclame Fossielvrij)
- Moderator Kiki Boreel (Dutch Climate Ambassador for the Future at the Ministry of Economics and Climate)
One recurring theme in the panel was how companies that want to do more and more for the environment can communicate their accomplishments or goals and still come across as credible.
Martine Doppen from Reclame Fossielvrij, strives for a ban on fossil fuel advertisements, ads with claims such as Shell being the frontrunner in green energy or KLM communicating the ‘’fly responsibly’’ program. ‘’False advertisements like that can be harmful to consumers since they are misinformed about their emissions and how they are being compensated for. In that way, they may be led to believe that driving or flying is not harmful.’’
Stan Veldhuis, emphasized that companies should generally avoid hollow sustainability claims.
Instead of using hollow sustainability claims: explain what you are doing.
According to Wim Vermeulen, ‘’Marketeers may have unfulfilled potential; they have the possibility to create new social norms and encourage sustainable consumption. Sustainable consumption is key to achieving the Paris Agreement. To unlock that potential, they should know that the rules for ‘’normal’’ marketing are not applicable to marketing in a climate crisis.’’ He mentions the 5 main tips for companies to earn credibility — as were identified in his research: companies should show transparency, commitment, engagement, a sense of urgency and shared value. ‘’And it is not about picking one, all five rules are interlinked and thus equally important.’’
Rituals Head of Innovation & Sustainability Niki Kauffman-Schilling says that it is important to be honest and real: ‘’We try to avoid these generic sustainability claims, as well as communicating anything that we haven’t reached yet. We are aware that reaching sustainability goals is a process and that it is something you must work for.’’
Another way to achieve less greenwashing is to look at regulations, nation- or EU-wide.
Stan Veldhuis: ‘’There are three aspects to consider when looking for where we want to see more regulations. Firstly, in what sector are sustainability claims most harmful and most used? That is the sector where we want more regulations. Secondly, are there certain absolute terms that are always misleading for consumers and should therefore be banned? Lastly, we strive for regulations on how to certify labels. There are too many unverified sustainability labels with different criteria. This is becoming increasingly unclear for consumers.’’
‘‘And as all B Corp representatives are also consumers, what would be the best tip for you as a consumer?’’ Kiki Boreel asks the panelist. Be critical towards sustainability claims in advertising, labels or packaging. As Stan Veldhuis says, ‘’when I see products in the shelves labeled as ‘’green’’ or ‘’sustainable’’ without support or context, I immediately see that as a red flag.’’
Martine Doppen: ‘’We should stay critical and listen to critical voices. Always ask yourself: Can you do more, can you do better?’’ And Niki Kauffman-Schilling adds: ‘’If we knew the perfect answers to all our climate challenges, we would already implement them. I like the activist voice as a constant encouragement, but I also believe in applauding each other once in a while on all the best efforts and achievements each of us is making.’’
B Corp Community: Continuous Improvement
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- The five rules of thumb for using sustainability claims in advertising: Guidelines on Sustainability Claims by the Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM).
- Find the rules with which responsible advertising must comply in the Dutch Advertising Code.
- Learn how credibility determines the effectiveness of sustainability communication in Navigating the credibility deficit by Bubka (a.o. Wim Vermeulen).
- Read why the (over) use of carbon credits to ‘offset’ or neutralize a company or product’s impact is a problem for reducing global emissions to keep climate goals alive in Briefing: Legal risks of carbon offsets by ClientEarth.
- DeSmog conducted an analysis of over 3000 adverts and promotions from six selected fossil fuel companies for an investigation on greenwashing. Read the results in Words vs. Actions: The truth behind fossil fuel advertising by Greenpeace.
- Curious about the different actors needed to fight greenwashing? Head over to 5 Media to read about the Anti-Greenwashers: the detectives, data geeks, placard-wavers and pranksters checking whether environmental claims stack up — and calling them out when they don’t.