sustainable business

Talking sustainability? Be accurate: your reputation is at stake

Sandra Stewart | October 16, 2014

Accuracy is essential to credibility. Duh, right? Yet organizations miss the accuracy boat all the time. Even one or two innocuous slip-ups can cast a pall of doubt over your business. 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 every business making sustainability claims faces skeptics. You don’t want to give them reason to believe you are greenwashing—and inaccuracies will be perceived by many as lying or manipulation.

The tricky part is that accuracy requires not only that you stick to the facts, but also that you avoid cherry-picking information in a way that creates an untrue impression. For example, the New York Times called foul on Growth Energy when the ethanol advocacy group implied that ethanol is ocean friendly when it blanketed a Washington subway station in the wake of the BP underwater oil spill with ads saying “No beaches have been closed due to ethanol spills.” The Times pointed out that U.S. ethanol is made primarily from corn, and fertilizer and pesticide runoffs from the Corn Belt are key contributors to dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic Coast. Ouch.

We can’t speak to Growth Energy’s intentions, but even the most ethical organizations sometimes fall into the cherry-picking trap. Seizing on news events to draw attention to your benefits is smart communications, but you have to make sure any comparisons you make will stand up to scrutiny.

When you’re making sustainability claims, it pays to fact-check obsessively, be precise, and avoid absolutes and false comparisons.

For more, see our Strategy>Shift guide, 9 Ways to Promote Sustainability without Greenwashing.


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