Seven tips to avoid greenwashing and social washing in your storytelling

Have you ever bought a product from a business that claimed to be ethical and sustainable, but felt suspicious that something wasn’t adding up? You may have been onto something!

For me, it happens every time I visit the H&M website and trawl through their ‘Conscious’ collection. Selling something in organic cotton doesn’t make up for the fact that your business model is based on feeding the throwaway fashion beast.  

Accusations of greenwashing and social washing are on the rise, and many businesses are facing lawsuits for misleading their customers. H&M is one of them.  

Greenwashing and social washing are the use of misleading claims by businesses that they are sustainable or socially responsible, when in reality their products, processes and/or practices are anything but.

Greenwashing and social washing don’t always happen because a marketing team sets out to deceive the public. There could be a disconnect in communication between marketing and other teams; or companies might lack robust processes to track their true environmental or social impact.

The bad eggs faking or exaggerating their green and social credentials are not just doing themselves a disservice: they’re silencing the voices of those doing real good. Consumers are increasingly losing trust in sustainable or socially conscious messaging – even when it’s honest.

Don’t fall victim to greenwashing or social washing yourself. Learn how to tell your stories honestly and transparently, using the lessons and tips below to guide you.

Lessons from businesses guilty of greenwashing and social washing

The brands I’ve profiled below have been big enough to weather a storm of accusations about their greenwashing or social washing. But their marketing missteps provide crucial lessons for the rest of us to stay a true course in the stories we tell about our businesses.

The social washing of Everlane

Lesson: Don’t pick and choose where you apply your ethics

When you claim to be ‘radically transparent’, be aware that the public will hold you to higher standards than other brands. Everlane’s tagline is ‘ethically made clothing’, and it backs this claim up with some impressive environmental credentials. Its Vietnamese denim factory, Saitex, recycles 98% of all water used, and it has science-based targets to reduce carbon emissions in line with the Paris agreement. But its ethics don’t appear to apply closer to home. During COVID, Everlane lost credibility, and a pool of influencers, when it appeared to unfairly dismiss its casual workforce as they sought to unionise. Earlier, the company was accused of anti-Black behaviour. Being ethical means treating everyone right.

The greenwashing and social washing of Thankyou Water

Lesson: Don’t undermine your credibility by setting up a company that actively worsens the problem you’re trying to solve!

Using bottled water to solve a humanitarian crisis in developing nations? It never made sense. Even Thankyou’s founder has since called it “silly”. Plastic waste contributes to social inequity around the world. Developing nations like Australia dump their plastic waste in other countries, where it’s often burnt and creates dangerous pollution. One person dies every 30 seconds in a developing country due to burned rubbish that includes plastic waste. The people who pick through landfill to make a living are also at risk of disease or even death by landslides. Thankyou ceased producing its bottled water in 2020 due to its negative impact on the environment. Hopefully, the change will go a little way towards changing lives in developing countries too.

The greenwashing of Aussie super funds

Lesson: Don’t grossly overstate your impact with false product names  

Recent research and analysis has shown that eight of Australia’s 11 major super fund investment options labelled ‘sustainable’ or ‘socially responsible’, are investing in companies involved in the fossil fuel sector! Mercer has a ‘Sustainable Plus Growth Fund’ that’s invested in Whitehaven Coal. Meanwhile, Hesta’s ‘Sustainable Growth’ option is invested in a company developing new fossil gas power plants. Sadly, it makes a mockery of the purported financial value of investing in sustainable options. They’re not going to get away with it though – ASIC is currently investigating a range of super funds.

The greenwashing of IKEA

Lesson: Don’t whitewash your history with a grand green announcement

When IKEA announced it had built its most sustainable store yet, it forgot to mention how it made that happen: by knocking down another pioneering green building (a Sainsbury’s supermarket)! The energy emitted from the demolition alone wiped out any environmental gains made by the new store. A new wave of architecture, profiled in my friend Dr Ruth Lang’s new book Building for change: The architecture of creative reuse is championing a rethink of building design to safeguard our planet. IKEA has also faced accusations of being linked to illegal logging in Europe.

Top Tips for Small Business to Avoid Greenwashing and Social Washing

For small product and service based businesses, the following tips will help you cultivate a culture, and implement business practices, that keep your marketing honest.

1. Avoid buzzwords

Don’t use terms that everyone else is throwing around (like eco-conscious, values-led or ethical). Make meaningful, specific statements that reflect what you are actually doing or achieving.

2. Keep the lines of communication open

If you have a team, make sure everyone is aware of what’s happening elsewhere in the biz. If you have a service-based business, is marketing aware of the work of sales or the professional team? Are you clearly communicating values and business objectives? If you have a product-based business, are you talking openly with your suppliers?

3. Don’t take advantage of collaborators or partners

Don’t seek out collaborators or partners because their eco credentials or social record might make you appear better. Learn from them instead, and effect real change in your business.

4. Know your footprint and real impact

Don’t claim to be green if you don’t have a grip on the impact of your entire product lifecycle or production process. Introduce sustainable practices in manufacturing, waste disposal and distribution. For service-based businesses, check how green your website is!

5. Don’t hide social misdeeds behind great environmental performance

You can have the most sustainable product in the world – but how much were people paid to make it? Don’t downplay poor social practices using more publicly palatable environmental achievements.

6. Keep your ads, website and packaging design honest

Review your ads, sales pages and packaging to make sure they’re not misleading your audience. Even with the best of intentions, it can be easy to slip into buzzwords or popular imagery that might not honestly represent your business.

7. Back your claims with facts and data

Don’t make up or exaggerate data, testimonials or clients. Avoid making big, bold claims about sustainable or socially conscious actions or achievements if they only form a small part of your business. Find current and credible data about your business and share that where possible. Seek certifications or group memberships that endorse your values. I’m a signatory to The Ethical Move for marketers.

As small business owners, the trust of our customers and clients is crucial to our success. Build that trust through authentic, transparent and honest storytelling that avoids greenwashing and social washing.

Additional sources (not linked above):

What is greenwashing? https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/10946-greenwashing.html