How to Avoid Greenwashing: Ethical Marketing in a Changing World

Humanity is facing its greatest challenge ever – environmental catastrophe. As business leaders, it’s unlikely we’ve seen the world shift quite like it is now – and with those shifts comes a shift in responsibilities. The decisions you make today will not only impact your bottom line but also the planet’s – and everyone’s – future.

During this period of rapid transition, and under the cozy blanket of business as usual, the natural tendency will be to hurriedly get messaging to market about how we’re “committed to environmental responsibility” so we don’t miss out on any upside, or leave ourselves open to competitors swooping in.

But the time we’re in and the flow-on impacts of taking a rushed approach for the sake of driving revenue requires that we take a beat to think first. Greenwashing is more insidious than you might first think. Let’s take a look at what it is and how to avoid it.

The New Green-Eyed Monsters

You’re likely to fall into one of two camps when it comes to sharing what initiatives are happening around sustainability within your organisation. One is to be wildly enthusiastic and want to shout from the rooftops because a) you’re proud of the work your team is doing, b) you want to get the jump on competitors (or join in the fun), or c) it’s the topic du jour.

This potentially well-intentioned enthusiasm slash slight ‘missing of the point’ could lead towards making exaggerated or incomplete claims to cultivate “green” perceptions among your stakeholders. This is what is known as “greenwashing”.

On the flip side, the second camp* you may fall into is to be hesitant to say anything at all, taking a far more conservative approach and shutting down all communication about what is – and isn’t – happening to take environmental responsibility. This suppression of crucial information from stakeholders is what is known as “greenhushing”.

*If you fall into neither of those, but instead, a third camp typified by a complete lack of awareness about all this green stuff, we need to talk.

So, what’s the middle ground? How do we avoid greenwashing/hushing?

Tell. The. Truth.

State clearly, factually and transparently what actions you are taking (and which ones you aren’t just yet and why). Share what the roadmap looks like (and therefore the end goal). And importantly, share openly what the learnings and mistakes are along the way.

In this unprecedented space, nobody knows all the right things to do all the time. We’re dealing with a rapidly moving feast when it comes to negative climate impacts, biodiversity loss, and the technological advances to help mitigate and adapt to them, and reduce emissions. So, it’s ok to fall over occasionally. Sharing these learnings is about embracing humility and allowing others to learn from your mistakes too. We’re all in this together, after all.

The Scope For Sustainability

Our responsibility needs to shift now to manage businesses not only profitably, but sustainably too. If the effects of climate change aren’t felt within your organisation now, they will soon be at least on the regulatory front, thanks to incoming climate-focused legislation and regulations on the scene in Australia from 2024 for ASX-listed companies and soon after for SMEs.

Understanding your environmental impact now is therefore vital. Enter Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions:

  • Scope 1: These are your direct emissions, stemming from your company’s facilities and vehicles.
  • Scope 2: Think of these as your indirect emissions – you don’t produce them, but you use them to bring your products or services to market (e.g., electricity).
  • Scope 3: This is the most intricate of the scopes, encompassing both upstream and downstream activities. It includes everything from your company’s goods and services purchased to the transport of your suppliers’ products and even the end-of-life treatment of your products.

Incorporating consideration of scopes 1, 2 and 3 into your strategy, coupled with a robust capability, stakeholder and competitive analysis can unlock some seriously exciting opportunities to innovate – including potentially the opportunity to create greater efficiencies that deliver cost savings.

Life In Plastic Is Not Fantastic

Something to be cognisant of at this point is that much of what we once knew to be the ‘epitome’ of environmental responsibility is no longer. For example, the total mass of produced plastics is now double that of all terrestrial and marine life on Earth (including humans). Plastic has been found in the placentas of pregnant women, inside clouds and at the very depths of the ocean. And despite recyclability, in Australia, only 16% of plastic is actually recycled.

The ANZPAC Plastics Pact (with a membership of the biggest brands across the country) has a target of 100% of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. However, Australia’s recycling capability and the woefully low recovery rates for recycling means this is a nice vision, without the ability to be applied in practice.

With this in mind, producing more plastic becomes reprehensibly irresponsible. And trying to circumvent this by ensuring your products are simply recyclable is arguably greenwashing.

See what we mean about greenwashing being more insidious than you think? We need to challenge our thinking and consider the entire system for effective sustainability action.

Brands Driving Change

There are some great examples of businesses that have turned sustainability into a competitive advantage by leveraging systems thinking and consideration of scopes 1-3.

Citizen Wolf, an Australian fashion brand, exemplifies this approach. Having taken a whole-of-business approach, they’ve achieved B Corp certification as a marker of their commitment to sustainability and equity.

Against the grain for a fashion brand, they source materials locally, create made-to-fit products to reduce wastage, and even repurpose scraps into smaller items. Their made-to-order clothing is ​48% less carbon-intensive​ than fast fashion. By taking out extensive inventory and making clothes to fit, they’re reducing waste. This is what sustainability in action looks like.

In addition to this, they play an activist role in their marketing. Most notably during Black Friday sale frenzies in 2022, they took a leaf out of Patagonia’s book to counter consumer culture by inviting people not to buy their product but to instead send them their clothes to dye black for longer wear. It gained traction for calling the campaign ​Black Fridye​, providing a clever hook back into the noise while also short-circuiting consumer behaviour.

Embrace Sustainability as Core to Business

To take meaningful sustainability action and not get caught up in greenwashing, what this comes down to is embedding sustainability as core to business, not just as discrete ‘sustainability initiatives’.

Sustainability is not a means to an end, but an end in itself.

To avoid greenwashing, we need to recognise that sustainability isn’t just the marketing department’s job, nor the sustainability team’s job. We need to build a culture of sustainability and creativity across the entire organisation and reap the benefits of engagement and alignment towards a common goal.

So, what can you do to approach sustainability without over or understating your efforts? Here are three key principles:

  1. Ethical Responsibility: Act responsibly and honestly, always. Engage your stakeholders in the process transparently – they may surprise you by offering new ways to collaborate or innovate.
  2. Education: Educate yourself and your team about your business’s true environmental impact and sustainability practices. Scrutinise your sources and respect the science.
  3. Empathy: Engage in open conversations with your customers and suppliers. Building trust is key.

Greenwashing can tarnish reputations irreparably, ethical marketing and sustainable practices have never been more critical. As we navigate the challenges of climate change and evolving regulations, remember that ethical actions speak louder than deceptive claims.

Melissa spoke about this with Mia Fileman on the Got Marketing? Podcast – Take a listen here on Spotify.

The Purpose Edit

Curated insights for conscious organisations and entrepreneurs shaping a just, fair, and sustainable economy. We handpick the most interesting reads and resources from 50+ newsletters on strategy, innovation, and climate change.


The Purpose Edit

Curated insights for conscious organisations and entrepreneurs shaping a just, fair, and sustainable economy. We handpick the most interesting reads and resources from 50+ newsletters on strategy, innovation, and climate change.

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