Because so much focus has come on greenwashing in the past couple of years, companies working in the field of sustainability are now terrified of accidentally landing in a shitstorm.
This was clearer than ever after I spent three days at the Citizens Climate Summit in Denmark this September. I cannot count the number of companies I heard talking about the fear of the shitstorm.
First off, I understand it. Shitstorms suck, and they pose a threat to your company, your reputation, and the foundation of your career. While that fear has validity, it is currently holding green companies hostage. Let’s break it down:
In the past couple of years, we’ve been seeing more and more companies working in this field of sustainability that are choosing not to promote their green attributes and their environmental effort out of fear that someone will call them out for greenwashing. This is a problem because, as consumers, we need to know what products and services are out there, so we are able to make an informed choice and can demand more from the industry as a whole, regardless of what industry this might be. Clothing, food, mobility apps, power production, you name it.
If we don’t know that you are better than your competition, how are we supposed to choose your products? Not talking about your environmental efforts is bad for the entire industry because it doesn’t show your competition what you are capable of. It doesn’t show other companies in the industry that how you run your business is an actual possibility – one that they might also adopt.
By not sharing how a company is working with sustainability and their environmental efforts, they are missing out on the chance to impact the rest of their industry.
Sharing is caring – not greenwashing
There’s this strange idea that if you talk about your environmental impact as a company, you cannot be trusted and that you should definitely not use your sustainable aspects as part of your marketing. It’s binary thinking, where people tend to think that only companies who don’t talk about their environmental efforts actually take action.
I want to call a big fat bullshit on this. Of course, you should use it as part of your marketing and your sales efforts. You are in this world to make a change. You started your company or pivoted your company because you want to leave the world better than you found it. You want to use your company to make an impact.
So, tell me again why you should not include the work you are doing with environmental issues or human rights issues as part of your marketing strategy? I get the noble idea that you should do your good deeds of silence, and that is beautiful. But come on… We are living in a global capitalist society.
Thinking that you can run a successful business without sales and marketing is akin to thinking you can run a marathon without training for it. Yeah, you might be able to, but in the process, you risk hurting yourself, and you will go through an unnecessary amount of pain while you are very likely to not reach your goal.
Okay, now that we’ve established that companies should not fall into the trap of being silent about their environmental efforts (also referred to as green hushing. More on that later), let’s look at how we can move beyond the fear of the shitstorm.
Moving beyond the shitstorm
First of all, understand that greenwashing is almost never intentional. It doesn’t come from companies thinking, “Golly, today I’m going to dupe someone into buying my product by saying it’s sustainable.” No, that’s not the majority of greenwashing cases out there. The more likely scenario is that you have a person in the marketing team who has a marketing background and a marketing education.
That’s fair. That’s why you hired the person, right?
But environmental communication and marketing is a bit different. Writing about sustainability can be daunting. What does ‘eco-friendly’ mean? What are the units related to carbon released into the atmosphere? Which raw materials are sustainable and which are not? When is something impactful, and when is it just pushing the problem further down the chain? This isn’t easy stuff. This isn’t something that you learn about in a pamphlet.
I fully get why greenwashing happens. It is not out of malice. It is not out even out of greed.
It is simply a lack of the right expertise in the marketing department. It’s hard to navigate the information about different environmental issues and their interconnectedness and how your product or services relate to them.
But as someone who has an environmental science background and has been elbow-deep in IPCC reports for the last decade and a bit, navigating environmental marketing while avoiding the greenwashing trap isn’t hard.
Avoiding the greenwashing trap
How should you market your company to avoid landing in a greenwashing shitstorm?
I can’t cover every aspect in just one article, but I will be posting advice on avoiding greenwashing in the coming weeks, so I recommend that you follow my company, something green, or connect with my personal account.
However, the number one thing you need to remember is that it’s okay not to be all the way there yet. The market, especially my generation and younger, understands that it’s a process. We understand that you are not perfect. Your company is not perfect, and you are not 100% sustainable because nothing is. We understand that we are all working towards something better. That transparency will build trust with your audience.
In your marketing material, you are allowed to say, “We are working towards 100% renewable energy consumption. These are the steps we have taken so far.” You are allowed to say, “We are working towards a transparent supply chain with all-biodegradable materials, but we are not there yet; this is what we have done so far.”
The internet is loud
I will leave you with a final remark. Don’t be afraid of the trolls.
Remember that no matter what you write in your content, there’s always gonna be someone putting it down because it is far easier to find mistakes than to see the journey of incremental change.
There’s always gonna be someone dissatisfied with what you’re doing. In this day and age, the people commenting on your social media pages might not even be actual people. They might be hired to spread negative comments. They might even be bots. Or they might be someone having a bad day and taking it out on your company. Remember that for every bad comment you get, there are likely 100s of positive comments you didn’t get because people didn’t take the time to comment on a company page. Why should they? Remember, the threshold of commenting positive things on a company post is much higher than commenting on a personal profile, whereas it’s a lot easier to post negative comments on a company profile because the company “has no feelings.”
Don’t be afraid of the trolls. Don’t hold off on your environmental marketing efforts because you are afraid of the shitstorm. Consumers and your industry need to see how you are making an impact. They can’t try to be like you if they can’t see you, and we need them to know about your impact. It’s not vanity, it’s a necessity.
Like it or not, telling the world about your impact is part of your impact.
If you want help making sure your content and communication strategy is greenwashing-proof, reach out. I offer anti-greenwashing audits and communication strategies that support your company’s key goal, will help you reach your target audience, and will help you make an impact.