Six tips for changing the greenwashing narrative and using PR to make the case for a climate and nature-conscious future.
Greenwashing has long been a buzz term, and for a good reason – consumers are more committed than ever to spending and investing ethically, with 94% of young people believing that companies should address social and environmental issues.
The public's commitment to solving the nature and climate crisis stretches beyond sales. Many people will consider climate justice, environmental inequality and ethical investment concerns within every aspect of an organisation, from CEOs and trustees to partners, benefactors, development and the human costs of an organisation's practices. It's logical for companies to take note of this interest, so many companies inflate the green credentials of their work in order to attract new customers and maintain a positive reputation. However, thanks to increased awareness of the climate and nature crisis and independent auditors like Ethical Consumer & Good on You, the customer really does know best. Greenwashing can affect your reputation and, therefore, the size of your client/customer base, the willingness of other organisations and individuals to collaborate with you and whether your employees want to continue working with you in future.
But first, let's define what 'greenwashing' actually is.
The term 'greenwashing' describes a PR and advertising strategy where organisations focus more on promoting their environmental credentials than they do on actually reducing their impact on the environment. This can be internally, when organisations notionally adopt an ethical strategy without actually doing the legwork to achieve it, or externally, through advertising campaigns with a less-than-legitimate grasp on environmentalism. This is particularly dangerous; greenwashing ends up perpetuating the climate and nature crisis by encouraging overconsumption, lulling people into a false sense of security and prioritising profit over all life. It's scary stuff, but we can combat it. Greenwashing can look like:
- Spending more money on promoting a green product than on developing the product itself
- Emphasising one positive ethical aspect (e.g. low plastic) in an advertising campaign whilst ignoring negative environmental and ethical issues like poor workers' rights, transport emissions and water usage
- Promoting a low-cost environmental investment (e.g. tree planting) whilst continuing to collaborate with, or invest in, environmentally damaging services
- Focusing solely on atmospheric carbon reductions whilst ignoring the bigger picture of climate justice, habitat loss and biodiversity loss.
It's important to note that, whilst this article provides some guidance on spotting and preventing greenwashing, there's no such thing as a simple checklist to "fix" greenwashing or to make your organisation environmentally friendly. Organisations need systemic change, from the inside out, to create positive change for people, and the planet. However, this system change can't just come from CEOs and senior management; it needs to be tailored to every aspect of your organisation and be informed by everyone's voices. No matter your position in an organisation, you have the power to educate others and create genuinely positive change. PR can't enforce an organisational overhaul, but you can overhaul your department - and act as an educator and collaborator with other areas of your organisation.
As a starting point, here are some actions to start changing the greenwashing narrative:
1. Make climate and nature a priority
Right now, we are at a pivotal tipping point for the state of the planet and the continuation of civilisation – the climate and nature crisis is the biggest threat to humanity's life on Earth we've ever experienced. This sounds terrifying (because it is), but we are not powerless; everyone has a part to play in the solution. No matter who you are, what you do, or what influence you have, all of us can work together to make a better, ecologically stable world a reality. When supported by organisational structures, time and funding, we have the potential to change our global course. This can only happen if everyone acknowledges the importance of the climate and nature crisis and its intersection with social justice and fairness. If you're working in PR, you may feel that you can't guide your organisation's actions. But you have the power to inform other parts of your organisation about greenwashing and to form collaborative solutions: the key is to get educated, believe in your voice and leadership skills, and commit to honest, transparent communication about the climate and nature crisis.
2. Education for everyone
As we've previously written, climate comprehension is a key aspect of maintaining happy, supported and socially conscious employees. That's why education is so important at every level of your organisation. If senior management understands the impacts their actions can have on the global climate and nature crisis, then this feeds into policy, practice, product development and PR. If PR understands the positive environmental impacts they can have on their audience, the potential is enormous; advertising stops being a dangerous game of avoiding potential boycotts and being… cancelled… and instead becomes a tool for good. From an organisational perspective, environmental considerations must be made at every step of production, sourcing and developing services. But for those of us who write about products or services instead of creating them, our focus has to be on understanding what exactly this climate and nature crisis is, and how our organisations' actions impact it.
3. Be transparent
Transparency is vital to consumer and employee trust in your organisation. Proving that you are taking genuine and well-researched environmental action is possible through visual reporting, sharing financial reports, and your work. If your commitment to solving the climate and nature crisis is genuine and proportional to the scale of your organisation, the evidence will speak for itself.
4. Share your story (aims and failings)
Showing awareness of previous greenwashing or half-hearted environmental work may sound risky, but when it's followed by a commitment to improve, solidified by real action, it has the potential to redeem your reputation. An apology and recognition of failings is only worthwhile if it is coupled with genuine, non-tokenistic action; building a positive reputation for your organisation and a better state of life for the planet.
5. Collaborate (non-tokenistically)
Supporting and collaborating with respected individuals and organisations will strengthen your climate credentials and the reach of their work. It's a win-win-win; you can learn from people well-versed in positive, socially conscious climate action, improve your own actions, and support and promote their existing work. It is vitally important that the work of any environmental organisations and individuals are properly paid and systemically integrated, otherwise, this becomes a tokenistic effort. When organisations make genuine, non-tokenistic changes and support environmental efforts because they believe in the cause - not the promo or exposure - that's when system change happens. That's when the best connections are forged.
6. Try climate training
It's no secret that misinformation surrounding the climate and nature crisis is everywhere. It's also true that researching climate change and understanding the social impacts of the climate and nature crisis is a full-time job in itself - it can be totally overwhelming, meaning that questions of climate justice and ethics often fall to the wayside in organisational strategy.
At AimHi Earth, we provide high-quality climate leadership training and consultancy for a wide range of clients, providing a holistic understanding of our current crisis, how it impacts us, how to talk about it, and how we can make positive changes at all levels of society. If you’d like to find out more, you can check out our training here.
If you'd like some help getting your team or senior management on board, we have a customisable email template you can use to do just that!
Whatever your needs are, reach out to us at email@example.com and let us know how we can support your sustainability strategy.