Greenwashing: Consumers should be wary about brands that claim to be green

Green is the new black but it's really a new grey. Confused? You should be.

How do consumers get a handle in the shady world of 'greenwashing'? asks Simon Ward
How do consumers get a handle in the shady world of 'greenwashing'? asks Simon Ward

The milk I drink is ethically sourced and the electricity that powers my television is derived from 50 per cent renewables.

I wash what little hair I have with a shampoo that proudly displays half a dozen eco logos on the back.
In turn I feel like a conscientious citizen, and that’s good for my ego and also good for business.

Research from Mintel tells us that consumers who believe in ethical brands are inclined to spend more. But, with the bottom line at stake, what’s acceptable to call ‘green’?

A product may well be sourced from a sustainable forest, but what if that wood requires twelve diesel-chugging HGVs to transport it 500 miles for processing? The claim is correct, but it doesn’t make it ethical.

And this is the new greenwashing.

It’s not about lying or fraudulent claims (which, as in the emissions scandal, the rule of law will act upon), but how you shade the claims on your packaging.

So, how do consumers get a handle in this shady world?

Give someone a 20 page report on the sustainability credentials of their shampoo? At least you’ll have some paper to put in the recycle bin.

Clear signposting is essential (and practical) because we, as consumers, like things to be pretty simplistic.

We’re hardwired to only process a small amount of information. We digest information in chunks. We generalise.

We see a label with a picture of a palm tree and immediately fill in the backstory to suit our own relationship with a brand, but underlying this simplistic model is a small thing called trust.

There is no global super arbitrator of what we can and can’t claim to be green.

This means we have to place our trust in brands, who even themselves are starting to curate their own ethical schemes, moving away from respected bodies like Fairtrade.

We give them trust but we also give them ultimate control of the parameters, the marketing, communications and messages.

With schemes like the M&S clothes recycling initiatives or Sainsbury’s own ‘fairly traded’ brand, companies trade off a level of faith in their name, which at present is more powerful than their use of an independent standard.

I would love to see a set of standards universally adopted from country to country, where products are independently assessed for their impact.

But I’m also a realist and understand that if the industry (and regulators) can’t even agree on basic nutritional labelling for food, how can we hope that they are able to succinctly detail more opaque sustainability credentials for people to digest?

Until consumers demand change, or Governments enforce it, we remain in a world of grey, where there is much choice, but little harmonisation. We are left to trust in the brands.

And, as any PR pro will tell you, trust is born from brand reputation, and reputations can be undone in a heartbeat (eco logo or not).

Simon Ward is an independent environmental-PR consultant

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