What Sets Sustainability Apart From Greenwashing?

authorShannon Correia dateAug 3, 2022 12:50:00 PM

It’s become the norm for almost every company out there to commit to being sustainable. Sustainability is an elusive word holding much promise and has become a requirement for brands the world over. The problem is when this becomes greenwashing, or slapping a label on to simply meet the requirements, versus true sustainability that protects the environment? Let’s investigate. 

The Call for Sustainable Business Practices

Worries regarding pollution and more recently, climate control, have become buzzwords. The UN has a list of Sustainable Development Goals to achieve by 2030, and many companies have had to adapt and find ways to make their practices and products greener too. An example of this is the war on plastic straws - an exemplary item that has by and large been banned as a means of curbing single-use plastics. 

In an effort to raise awareness regarding environmental issues and a means to preserve wherever possible companies engage in green and sustainable marketing. These terms go hand-in-hand, which the former focusing on keeping the environment clean and sustainable referring to an umbrella ideal of social, economic, and ecological justice. 

For some businesses, sustainability is purely marketing speak and a way to falsely gain the trust of their consumers to sell to more producers and avoid the wrath of cancel culture. When it’s all talk, the reality is that these companies do next to nothing to implement truly sustainable operations. Consumers have woken up to this, holding brands to account for their claims. 

So what exactly does a company need to do to be truly sustainable? This of course depends largely on the industry and business itself, but the overall goal of achieving societal good is to have a holistic aim of being as ‘clean’ as possible by reducing harm to the environment - and people. Unsustainable labor practices have also come to light in recent years, from poor factory conditions to burnout in the workplace. 

Companies need to also extend their efforts beyond their internal business as well by taking a closer look at their partners and suppliers. Other efforts include minimizing the carbon footprint by working with companies that are closer to you. The problem is, that sustainable practices are often costly for a business. For many, the goal is to have a CSR initiative that won’t cut too deeply into their profit margins. In other cases, these environmental measures are simply in place to reduce costs (like hotels saving on the cost of cleaning bedding masked as a bid to reduce water usage). And the fact is: that consumers are willing to pay more for greener products.

The fact is, some brands aren’t willing to do that. And in these instances, it is best for them not to virtue signal about imagined efforts to go green. Instead, they should be transparent with consumers and let people decide which brands they want to support. When the lies creep in, there are legalities to face, and a lot more to potentially lose if people catch on. It really only takes one whistleblower to put a brand’s reputation at risk. 

Greenwashing has been in effect for half a century. The difference is that consumers today are conscious of their impact on the world and have access to information in ways that they didn’t before. This generation has also seen the effects that irresponsible business practices have had and wishes to play their role in making a difference, no matter how small. 

greenwashing vs sustainability

The Greenwashing Test: How Sustainable is Your Brand, Really?

To avoid deceptive techniques about how you’re mining your impact on nature, run through this checklist and see how your company levels up:

  • What is the goal of the initiatives? The answer should be to save the environment, not to save face. It should also be clearly stated, as vague terms and hopes leave room for hidden trade off’s and limited results. 
  • How have you introduced sustainability into your company? It needs to extend beyond marketing campaigns and be part of your brand's ethos, vision, and mission. 
  • What are your claims? Claims not only need to be truthful but responsibly stated as well. Over exaggerating certain elements and downplaying others is also a means to an end and a deceptive tactic. It is also important to be wary of bogus claims represented as skewed stats.
  • Is the brand transparent? Part of sustainability is having the proof to back your claims. Make the chain of sustainable practices available for customers to follow. 
  • How are the sustainability goals being tracked? While it’s all good and well to have goals, these amount to very little when a company doesn’t keep track of the effects that these changes have. Tallying up is not only for bravado, but also to mark your contributions and find ways to do things better. 
  • What certifications of you have? With a global focus on sustainable efforts, there are numerous certifications a brand can attain to prove its role in these measures. Be aware of the relevant authoritative bodies that can provide evidence that a brand is being truthful. 
  • The words you use matter. Knowing the terminology is important at every level - it can prevent otherwise toxic materials from going unnoticed, but it also matters when it comes to marketing. Differentiate between eco-friendly, green, natural, organic, and bio-degradable - this will prevent miscommunication and false claims. 

So, what does it mean for products to be clean and green? It means they have produced sustainability and are free from toxic or endangered ingredients. The packaging should be recycled or recyclable. 

However, it’s easy for green marketing to translate to greenwashing in practice when an organization doesn’t live up to the standards of sustainable business practices. “Eco-friendly,” “organic,” “natural” and “green” are just some of the widely used labels that can be confusing and misleading to consumers. 

Did Your Brand Pass the Test? Clean Up Your Marketing with Nexa

If your brand is not part of the green movement, should be, or is and you just don’t know how to market it properly, Nexa is here to help.

It’s time to wash away the superficial sustainability claims and get your brand on board with the type of accountability that will enhance its essence for employees, the community, and idealistically, the world at large. Avoid catching on to trends that lead to no real change. Market your business in the best possible way, with green leading the way. It’s time for businesses - mega corporations especially, to take true accountability for their impact on the environment. In a time where much is uncertain, this is not: we won’t get anywhere by collectively faking it.