By Shannon Courtney
With the growing impact of climate change globally, many companies are implementing sustainable business practices to reduce their carbon footprint on the planet and market to green-friendly consumers. But how do you know if a business is making substantive changes to implement sustainable operations or merely capitalizing on consumers’ interest in environmental responsibility by creating the facade of being a green business while continuing harmful environmental practices?
The latter behavior is known as greenwashing, which occurs “when a company or organisation spends more time and money on marketing themselves as being sustainable than on actually minimizing their environmental impact,” according to Earth.org. The YLAI Network offers key takeaways to help emerging entrepreneurs avoid greenwashing their businesses and be more sustainable in practice.
What is greenwashing?
In today’s global market, Nielsen’s Global Corporate Sustainability Report found that 66% of consumers are more likely to spend more on a product if it is marketed as sustainable. Therefore, entrepreneurs can implement sustainable practices in their business to better the planet while also amassing a new consumer base. But if a company’s actions are not backed up by real shifts in their business model, then this form of marketing can mislead consumers by producing an illusion of selling eco-friendly products and services.
A company announcing the goal for its packaging to be 100% recyclable or reusable by 2030 without providing defined targets and a schedule to support its goals would be considered an example of greenwashing. The goal itself may be meaningful and portray the company as eco-conscious, but a lack of specificity or concrete action raise questions about accountability and intent to follow through.
In the worst cases, greenwashing may even amount to intentionally misleading customers in order to increase profits. For example, with an increase in companies falsely advertising plastic products as being sustainable and eco-friendly, California state law banned the sale of plastics advertised as “compostable” or “biodegradable,” because such advertising produces deceptive marketing without a disclaimer on the packaging about the biodegrading process.
So what are some of the ways you can avoid greenwashing yet make sure your sustainability practices are being recognized?
Be actionable with your language.
When packaging and marketing your product, avoid using fluffy language — terms with no clear meaning to the consumer, such as “eco-friendly,” “produced sustainably,” and “all natural.” These terms might sound great, but your company could be feeding into greenwashing with no explanation or definition. Moreover, these terms are very subjective: What could mean “sustainable” to you and your company might be different from the ideas in the consumer market.
Commit to transparency.
If you claim your product produces a benefit for the consumer, you should include proof — from clinical studies, surveys, etc. — that these are factual claims. This will give your company credibility, allowing the consumer to believe the company is making efforts toward sustainability without fearing that you are fabricating. It will also help your business and product stand out from potential competitors who might not have implemented sustainable business initiatives. To market your business as green or sustainable, you should provide real data and metrics.
If you are making real improvements in your business to be more sustainable and eco-conscious, use this as an opportunity to effectively market your business by providing accurate reports to your consumers and promoting highlights on social platforms that confirm the ways you are genuinely contributing to a sustainable and eco-friendly business.
The biggest way to build trust with your consumers is to be transparent and follow through on your promises. Set goals for your business and follow through on your goals by providing real insight into your practices directly to your consumers. Here are some other ways you can be more sustainable and start to green your business.
Examples of sustainable businesses with authentic actions and results
María Suriano, a 2018 YLAI Fellow, is the founder of Masshii, a wearable art and ethical jewelry company that uses unconventional materials and creates fair employment opportunities for at-risk women in El Salvador. This company transforms waste materials into unique and multicultural accessories, creating environmental consciousness through fashion.
Victor Rujano Bautista, a 2017 YLAI Fellow, is the co-founder of Culturas Indígenas y Medio Ambiente Sustentable (CIMAS), an organization committed to promoting and defending the human rights of indigenous peoples and the protection of the environment in the Venezuelan state of Zulia. The organization defends the region’s environment and natural resources and the right of every citizen to enjoy a healthy, safe and ecologically balanced environment.
Head over to #YLAI Goes Green to learn more about what you can do to make sure your business is sustainable.