PR & thought leadership

Selling sustainability without greenwashing

Carolyn McMaster | July 31, 2014

We want people to talk about their sustainability initiatives—we’re all about encouraging people to buy more sustainable products and services. But avoiding greenwashing is a genuine messaging challenge, even for marketers with the best intentions.

People are more skeptical than ever of green claims: in Cone Communications’ 2013 Green Gap Tracker survey, 78 percent of respondents said they would boycott a product if they learned its environmental claims were misleading. And you don’t want to run afoul of the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides.

While it’s often easy to spot greenwashing when others are doing it, it’s harder to see how your own communications will stack up under scrutiny—your eyes are clouded by your good intentions. To pass the test, sustainability messaging lives up to three simple standards.

If you think this is obvious, great. But beware of the curse of good intentions. They can lead companies to present what they plan to do as what they are doing, what they hope to achieve as what they are achieving, what they believe as what they know. The rule is, if you can’t prove a claim, don’t make it part of your messaging.

This standard bears special mention in relationship to sustainability, where the tendency is to use phrasing that’s either so vague the claim is misleading or meaningless, or so complex only a sustainability wonk can understand it. Clarity and accuracy go hand in hand—if you’re not clear, there’s a good chance you’re not accurate. If you can’t make a clear statement in plain language, you risk baffling your audience (at best) or raising suspicions of greenwashing (at worst).

It’s important to say how your company, product or service is sustainable. Broad or vague claims are difficult, if not impossible, to substantiate, as the FTC’s Green Guides note. The Guides frown on general environmental benefit claims like “green” and “eco-friendly” and advise marketers to qualify claims with “clear, prominent, and specific” environmental benefits.

At Thinkshift, we also rule out extravagant superlatives like “most sustainable” and “the leading ….” It’s unlikely that any of us stands alone at the head of the class. Statements like these are unprovable, and they’re used so often in mindless marketing blather that they lack meaning.

This is part four of a series of posts on messaging and how to use it. Missed the first three? Check them out here and here and here. Can’t wait for the last chapter? Get our Strategy>Shift guide, Messaging 101: 5 Keys to Unlocking your Verbal Brand.


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