Is calling a product or service "green" worth the risk? Many bloggers and activist groups stand ready to slap the "greenwash" label on corporate claims, and consumers are showing less willingness to trust such messages. The conundrum surrounding green claims has become so pronounced that a new term, "greenhush," has been coined for the practice of downplaying or staying silent about the environmental benefits of a company's offerings.
According to non-profit BSR and Futerra Sustainability Communications, keeping quiet to avoid confrontation isn't the answer: consumers want environmentally friendly products. Their new report, Understanding and Preventing Greenwash: A Business Guide, lays out the challenges companies face in communicating green messages, and provides a framework for shaping and evaluating these claims... before the criticism starts rolling in.
The Sweet Spot: High Environmental Value, Responsible Communications
According to the report, effective environmental communications include
- Genuine improvement of the environmental and social performance of products;
- Alignment of improvement efforts throughout the company;
- Communication that creates clear understanding for consumers; and
- Establishment of leadership within a company's industry sector.
Failure on any of these elements can lead to charges of greenwash. Furthermore, a company's reputation, the reputation of its sector, and even consumer trust of business in general may play a role in a less-than-enthusiastic response from stakeholders.
Getting Past Greenwash
The hurdles to effective environmental communications are high, but not insurmountable. To reach the sweet spot, a company must be willing to ask itself
- Are the environmental benefits real and significant? Do they address genuine environmental issues? Are the related to a business' core activities? Do they represent significant investment?
- Are multiple functions aligned around these efforts? Does green show up in tangible ways beyond the marketing department? Has this alignment been verified by a reputable third party?
- Are communication efforts clear and accurate? Can consumers easily understand the benefits of company's activities and offerings? Can messages be supported with data? Does communication avoid self-glorification?
Charges of greenwashing aren't going away... if anything, they're growing. This attention represents both challenge and opportunity: more watchdogs exist because more consumers are interested in the environmental impact of the products they buy. Companies that make genuine, transparent efforts to meet this demand, and communicate it effectively, will best serve all of their stakeholders... including shareholders.