A recent study by Mindshare found that 49% of UK consumers they surveyed believed brands were guilty of greenwashing.
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The way people talk and think about sustainability has drastically changed over the last few years. Many of the recent changes we see are in the language we use around the environment which reflects a more impactful, more urgent and often more negative and emotional stance. The Oxford English Dictionary found between 2018 and 2020 the use of the term “climate crisis” instead of “climate change” had increased nearly 20-fold. A real sense of urgency that is upon us is now reflected in the way we talk about climate and other sustainability-related issues.
Maybe it is the name that is the problem. Climate change. It doesn’t sound that bad. The word “change” resonates quite pleasantly in our restless world. No matter how fortunate we are, there is always room for the appealing possibility of improvement. Then there is the “climate” part. Again, it does not sound so bad.
Research has shown that emotive and powerful language can influence behaviours. A subtle change to the language we use can invoke an individual’s desire to maintain their self-image to be good and honest. But climate issues can often feel quite distant and vague. If the aim is to try and get people to make decisions that will change things in the future, we need to reframe the conversation around climate issues to give a sense of seriousness and immediacy, and of personal action and responsibility.
The curse of greenwashing
The concept of “greenwashing” – making activities and companies sound like they are doing more work than they really are on key sustainability issues, especially climate – is a top concern for our clients and for employee and investor stakeholders alike. Greenwashing and the language used around greenwashing is highly complex. As there is currently no legal definition of greenwashing in England and Wales, it can be difficult to pinpoint whether a company’s claim about its products or services is in fact misleading. However, examples such as the Volkswagen scandal in 2015 highlight how greenwashing can have a huge negative impact on a company, its brand value and its stakeholders. A recent study by Mindshare found that 49% of UK consumers they surveyed believed brands were guilty of greenwashing.
Websites such as stopthewash.com and wherefrom.com have been set up by activist groups which campaign against greenwashing and the use of misleading language about a company’s environmental or ethical credentials. Greenwashing is all about communication, so the language companies choose to use to communicate how they approach sustainability is becoming increasingly important and necessary to build trust for customers, investors and regulators.
Regulation is on the horizon
In the UK, there have not been any notable legal cases against companies for greenwashing; however, there has been an increasing number of fines and investigations by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and by NGOs such as ClientEarth and Greenpeace. In 2022, the ASA has brought action against 16 companies which have exaggerated their green credentials or made claims that could not be substantiated, including against HSBC, which was found to be misleading customers by promoting its climate change initiatives but omitting reference to the bank’s considerable contribution to rising emissions.
Stewarts Law also predicts that it will see an increase in investor actions against boards of directors for falling foul of their directors’ duties if they fail to make good green claims, such as the recent case of ClientEarth bringing a claim against Shell’s board challenging its net zero strategy.
Fortunately, the FCA’s proposed Sustainability Disclosure Requirements (SDR) aim to provide clarity to companies on how to use language to avoid greenwashing and ensure that sustainability-related claims are clear, fair and not misleading across all communication channels. The proposed SDR is still out for consultation, but a published policy statement is expected by early 2023 which will provide a more robust timeline for implementing the regulations.
What can you do to avoid greenwashing in your corporate communications?
1. Avoid vague, “feel-good” language and imagery
Don’t use terms like “natural”, “green” or “good for the planet” without actually changing your approach to sustainability or being able to substantiate the claims.
2. Disclose credible metrics
Be transparent and back up your claims through credible, substantiated data. Disclosing data alongside pledges and policies helps provide honest communication with stakeholders.
3. Get accredited
There are a number of respected third-party organisations that can certify and legitimise the environmental and social responsibility claims you’re making.
Worried about greenwashing, and thinking about the way your business talks about sustainability?
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