How brands can promote their sustainability efforts while avoiding “greenwashing”

Digital Marketing7 min read

Sustainability is the THE buzzword (after COVID19, that is) of the year 2021 and has been one of the most relevant issues at a global level. Now more than ever, we are seeing consumers actively seeking brands which align with conscious and sustainable values. So called “green customers” have never been as environmentally aware as they are today. When it comes to environmental issues, 77% of consumers consider it at least moderately important that brands are sustainable and/or environmentally responsible while a further 78% are seeking brands who offer “clean” products. But it doesn’t stop at sustainability; 70% of Germans state that ethical criteria have now become an integral part of their purchasing decision. Similarly, 60% of Italians expect to see a concrete commitment from companies to solve social and environmental problems. Naturally, this has not gone unnoticed; increasingly under intense external pressure, more and more companies are rethinking their organizational and commercial processes to reach this new type of consumer.

Source: IBM, 2020

However, there are inherent challenges when it comes to marketing conscious products. How can companies on one hand promote their newest products, encouraging consumption and, therefore, driving profit but on the other hand show their customers that they are taking responsible efforts to reduce waste, over-consumption and the destruction of the environment?

Beware of “greenwashing”

While many organizations are genuinely designing new solutions to meet the new environmentally conscious needs of their clients there are unfortunately many who miss the mark. These companies have come under fire by promoting supposedly sustainable efforts only to face backlash from conscious consumers. Known as greenwashing, this tactic which is used to trick consumers into thinking that their products are environmentally-friendly as a way to boost profits only seeds deep mistrust in the minds of consumers, and ultimately harms a brand’s image and decreases profits

A well-known example of greenwashing comes from disposable diaper brand Huggies, which in 2015 promoted its “pure & natural” diapers. With leafy, green imagery and a label touting organic materials, the brand painted a very different image than the reality. The product they claimed was organic was, in fact, full of harmful non-organic materials, resulting in a lawsuit brought against the producer of these diapers by consumers. This is merely one of many brands that have come under scrutiny in the last years for misleading consumers in order to sell more products.

Therefore, it’s absolutely crucial that companies actually commit to a sustainable strategy. But even organizations which are working to make their products and processes sustainable, need to carefully consider how they communicate these green efforts.

So how can companies establish themselves as sustainable?

Align on strategy

First, companies need to align on a credible green marketing strategy in order to build their brand image as ecologically sensitive. Green positioning is only trustworthy if sustainable efforts are reflected in all company activities. Companies become discredited if they claim to be sustainable while engaging in unsustainable business practices e.g. using fabrics or dyes in their clothing which is harmful to the environment. But it doesn’t stop at the product alone; the pricing and packaging also have a massive impact on their credibility. The excessive use of plastics, for example, is a topic that is very much on the minds of consumers; companies should, therefore, invest in recycled or plastic-free packaging.

Once aligned on a green strategy, they should make use of their own website and social media platforms to communicate and strengthen their core values. Social media posts give brands the opportunity to communicate directly with their clients, nurturing positive associations and interactions while also giving their customers the opportunity to relate and connect to the brand directly. Publishing sustainability reports, relevant information, progress, and behind-the-scenes insights also serves to increase the likelihood that potential customers will remember the company and their sustainable actions.

Sustainable marketing is the marketing of sustainable products in a sustainable way, we’re not printing hundreds of flyers and throwing them around the streets; we’re educating consumers so they can make more informed decisions about which products to buy when they need them.”

Nick Spensley, Head of PR and Marketing at UK-based sister brands Togetherband and Bottletop

Educate your customers

Second, sustainable companies should focus on informing their customers. It’s crucial for companies to spread and establish normal new lifestyle and consumption habits that make the environment and social concerns the primary drivers of choice. There is the real need to educate consumers so they can make more informed decisions about which products to buy when they need them. Cult outerwear brand Patagonia has strived over the last decade to continually educate their customer base; in an effort to reduce waste, they launched their Worn Wear Wagon, a mobile repair shop which offered to mend products and also taught customers to repair their damaged products by themselves. By promoting their customers’ better understanding of green practices, companies support a holistic approach to conscious consumption, driving their success long term.

Tell them a story

Finally, organizations need to carefully tailor their advertising strategies to better suit the tastes of the conscious consumer. Classic advertising formats such as display ads with limited space and loud advertising messages are rather inappropriate to reach green marketing goals. However, storytelling formats with compelling and detailed content serve to educate consumers and create a memorable, positive experience, earning the respect and loyalty of consumers. Research also shows that the human brain responds to the descriptive power of stories in deeply affecting ways suggesting that editorial content can even cement a lasting connection.

Storytelling formats, like the Creative Branded Package, immerse users in an interactive, educational experience that leaves a lasting impression.

Particularly suitable storytelling formats for sustainable brands can include native advertising such as advertorials, promoted videos, or even formats including multiple storytelling components. A good example of this would be Stylight’s Creative Branded Package. Including a Native Article and “Microsite”, this format enables brands to immerse users in an interactive, educational experience rather than overtly push sales and is, therefore, ideal for sustainable brands willing to engage in a subtler advertising strategy that sparks interest and instills a sense of trust in their brand.

written by:

Karin Brenner

Lead Advertising Manager

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