Eco education needed for brands to beat greenwashing crackdown

By Pelican MD Michael Bennett.

3 minute read

The announcement that the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is tightening its grip on supermarkets over fears of increasing greenwashing claims by food and drink brands, should come as no surprise.

The CMA has already forced some of the big fast fashion retailers to rethink their green claims, and they now have their sights set on the growing number of household brands that make bold statements about the sustainability of their food and drink items, cleaning products and toiletries.

Consumers are more actively seeking out sustainable products so it’s not surprising that brands and retailers are keen to shout about their green credentials. Research from Deloitte shows that 40% of consumers have specifically chosen to purchase from brands with environmentally sustainable practices or values, whilst 34% have actually stopped purchasing from certain brands due to ethical or sustainability-related concerns about them1. More than ever, consumers are demanding companies take action and introduce sustainable business practices.

The problem is that sustainability is complex.  What may seem like substantiated credentials don’t end up standing up to scrutiny. Such nuanced considerations are outside the scope of the experience of most brand managers, so it’s no surprise eco claims may often be based on an incomplete understanding of real-world effects.  Many marketing teams simply don’t have the knowledge or expertise to ensure their green claims are valid.

Even big retailers can get sustainability wrong

For example, last year Morrisons’ switched its own-brand fresh milk from plastic bottles to Tetra Pak cartons. This ignited a debate over whether this was a genuinely commendable move to reduce plastic – or a poor decision that could actually lead to more waste and see the firm fall foul of greenwashing legislation.

At the time Tetra Pak argued for the superior carbon impact of its cartons versus the more conventional plastic packaging, using a 2020 life cycle assessment that concluded its carton packages have a lower carbon footprint than glass, plastic or metal packages.

However, a wider review of consumer habits and the actual impact of such a packaging change painted a different picture. It was argued that the switch away from an item that is 100% recyclable via kerbside collections to a multi-layer pack made of paper, plastic and aluminium and which is not even recyclable in 20% of kerbside collections was baffling and would lead to far more waste.

Substantiating green claims requires the biggest big-picture thinking. The whole product lifecycle needs to be considered. What can seem like an obvious positive on the surface can reveal net negative results with further investigation.

Marketers worried they’ll inadvertently greenwash

And it’s this complexity that’s posing problems for marketers. Research by the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) in 2021 revealed that half of UK marketers are now wary of working on sustainability campaigns in case they are accused of greenwashing. (Read more about the survey undertaken by CIM here.)

This puts them at odds with both consumers, who demand businesses be more active when it comes to sustainability, and the recognition that sustainability must be a business priority. In fact, 51% of companies surveyed went as far as saying climate change could threaten the very existence of their business or clients.

There’s no doubt marketers have their work cut out. The CIM research shows increasingly savvy consumers are sceptical of brands’ sustainability efforts, with 63% believing many brands only get involved with sustainability for commercial, rather than ethical, reasons.

So how should brands and retailers respond?

The first and most obvious thing is to avoid making sweeping sustainability statements such as “environmentally friendly,” or “eco.” Such words are meaningless unless there is an accompanying explanation of what exactly the claim is based on. The CMA will expect specific details that consumers can use to compare products.

Secondly, work with sustainability specialists to understand how to implement the change you’re trying to affect. Critics will argue that large brands and grocery retailers have no shortage of experts to check their claims are correct. Examples will be made of the brands that are deemed to be misleading consumers.

Teams need to be educated on the complexity of sustainability

Whilst there are no doubt some brands trying to gain a competitive advantage by pushing the sustainability angle, most senior marketers realise the potential damage to their brand from negative PR far outweighs the short-term benefit of a ‘green sales gain’.

What’s needed is for more brands and supermarkets to educate their marketing teams on the true complexity of sustainability. What’s good today won’t be good enough tomorrow.

Brands should be transparent with the public. Being honest about where improvements can be made and outlining plans and aspirations garners trust. It’s important to recognise we are all on a journey towards a circular economy, where ideally waste is eliminated and simply becomes the feedstock for another process.

The industry will always face greenwashing criticism, but through improved education and transparency brands and supermarkets can better communicate that they can be powerful agents for the change we all need to achieve.

Pelican Communications is a specialist sustainability PR agency with expertise in food, packaging, waste, recycling, energy and trade associations. We provide a range of services including strategy, design, content creation, public relations, CSR reporting, video and animation production plus people development. Contact us for marketing and communications expertise.

Photo by kazuend on Unsplash