How to avoid ‘greenwashing’

by Lulu Trask – Oct 29, 2021

With COP26 fast approaching (Sunday 31st October – Friday 12th November), businesses around the world are placing sustainability at the forefront of their content marketing campaigns. And while over the past few years, against the backdrop of climate protests and governments’ promises, the notion of building a better, greener world has moved higher on everyone’s to-do list, the run up to COP has only accelerated this agenda.  

Doing this brings the challenge of creating unique content centred on sustainability – at the same time as every other business. And with this comes an even bigger challenge: telling your sustainability story without being tarred with the term ‘greenwashing’. So here are our tips for creating content that tells your sustainability story while remaining authentic. 

Honesty is the best policy 

Unfortunately, we haven’t saved the planet yet – we’re a long way off. But that means we all have something in common that helps engagement: there’s more that we can do. And in fact, a bit of honesty about what we could all do better can go a long way in building trust with clients and audiences. Tackling climate change is a big, big ask, so don’t be afraid to admit that and talk about the challenges that come with things like net-zero targets and how to measure progress. 

But remember when the founder of Extinction Rebellion admitted she drives a diesel car? If being honest about your sustainability practices isn’t going to do you any favours, your time might be better spent in first adjusting and improving those practices before telling the world about them.  

Proof is in the pudding 

While hearing all about what will be done in the future can bring a sense of (often much-needed) optimism, to ensure your audience knows these are promises you’re intending to fulfil, and not just green noise, tell them what you’ve achieved so far. Data and evidence go a long way in proving a business takes sustainability seriously, and will quickly filter out the doers from the sayers. As one of our editors said: “It can be a bit cringeworthy when a company preaches about sustainability just because they’ve planted a few trees.”  

A strong way to tell a story is through case studies, where possible. There’s nothing more powerful than someone explaining how their life has been transformed by a company’s sustainability policies, so if your business allows for this, make sure those voices are heard.  

And if you’re early in your sustainability journey or have only recently started reporting on your ESG credentials – own that, don’t overstate, or overinflate. Everyone must start somewhere. It’s the fact you’ve started that’s important. 

Practice what you preach 

Make sure your actions match your campaign. If you’re telling your sustainability story, the medium through which you tell it needs to be sustainable too. Do you need to print as many copies of that brochure as you planned? Can you use more sustainable printing practices, like paper and ink, that are less harmful to the environment?  

Avoid clichés 

When a topic is covered left, right and centre, avoiding clichés is both a challenge and a must, when it comes to the design and layout of content. By looking at the detail, you can avoid the stereotypical solutions and instead create something unique, based on the authentic story behind the ‘climate change’ banner that you’re trying to tell. Creatively, this will result in finding an angle that’s not bland and been done a million times over but has depth and offers engagement. 

Keep it relevant 

Very few businesses are in an industry where they can tackle climate change as a whole – so don’t pretend to. Focus on the areas most relevant to you. This will bring authenticity, and will give you the opportunity to tangibly show what you’ve achieved. Lots of businesses align their sustainability practices with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, for example, but few companies can align with all 17. Instead, identify the ones you have aligned your business with. 

Sustainability is becoming part of everyone’s story. Telling it in an effective and engaging way is crucial, because it might just be the most important story we ever tell. 

Published Oct 29, 2021

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