Three ways to avoid greenwashing in marketing

Three ways to avoid greenwashing in marketing

As buying decisions are increasingly influenced by environmental impact, marketers are finding themselves under pressure to prove they’re doing their bit to save the planet. But how do you address concerns about plastic without compromising commercial needs, or worse still, misleading your customers?

The backlash against plastic that began with the Blue Planet II series has resulted in an acute awareness of plastic consumption and a widespread consumer battle to reduce our reliance on it, even during lockdown. But consumers cannot fight this battle alone. They are demanding to know what brands, manufacturers and retailers are doing to stem the flow of plastic into our homes and the environment.

A Kantar Worldpanel survey of 5,000 UK shoppers showed 24.6% are extremely concerned about plastic food packaging, while 60% say they are doing their bit to reduce plastic waste generated. Furthermore, a 2015 study by Ebiquity Global CSR study found that 91% of global consumers expect companies to operate responsibly in order to address social and environmental issues and 90% stated they would boycott a company if they learned of irresponsible or deceptive business practices.

In the face of such fierce opinion it’s unsurprising to see brands rushing to announce new green initiatives, implemented to prove which side they’re on in the war against plastic.

The War on Plastic

The start of 2019 saw supermarket chain Waitrose remove black plastic packaging from its own-brand fresh food range including fresh meat, fish, poultry, fruit and vegetables.

Since then Sainsbury’s has committed to removing all black plastic packaging from its own-brand products by Marchof this year, along with a range of other plastic reduction pledges. Tesco, Morrisons, Aldi… the list goes on. Marketing teams up and down the country have been quick to shout about their efforts. A little too quick perhaps?

In the early days of the plastics revolution it was enough to announce a ban on single-use plastics use or a move to recyclable packaging. Today however, consumers are far more informed, and you only need to scratch the surface of well-intentioned plans to reveal their flaws – something that customers are all too happy to do, often publicly. Marketers must therefore be prepared for tougher questions about the wider sustainability impact of their decisions.

A recent report by the Green Alliance highlighted some common complaints with the way brands are responding to the demand for less plastic. For example, paper bags are just as quickly disposed of as plastic ones and producing them uses four times as much energy.

The problem is it’s impossible for most people, who have no technical knowledge, to assess the pros and cons of different materials. Rightly or wrongly, consumers rely on brands to make the right decision on their behalf, and trust in them tends to rise during times of world crisis. Therefore, it’s important for brands to understand the environmental impact of plastic alternatives before making decisions about their packaging format.

Here are three areas to consider when deciding how your brand should respond to consumer concerns about plastics: 

1. Circular economy principles should be at the heart of your thinking

The waste hierarchy says: ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ so the best thing brands can do is avoid using unnecessary packaging in the first place. Most brands seem to understand this, except perhaps when it comes to special occasions such as Easter or Christmas, but that’s another branding story altogether.

Whilst plastic may be public enemy number one in the environmental stakes, it’s also lightweight, durable, flexible, versatile and crucially, relatively inexpensive to produce. Which is why it’s become so popular in terms of the product process.

And therein lies the problem. As a cheap material, plastic is also considered a disposable material, and with images of plastic pollution burnt into the public consciousness, the urge to find an alternative is understandable.

When considering alternatives brands should ask: is the new material recyclable and, vitally, will it be recycled? And if so: how many times? PET, the plastic commonly used for bottled water and soft drinks, can be recycled into rPET. But most plastics can only be recycled a limited number of times, before the quality of the material suffers affecting its ability to be reused, whereas glass, aluminium and steel packaging can be recycled an infinite number of times without any loss of quality.

So, it may be better for your brand to move to a slightly heavier material that has a vastly superior recycling rate and established recycling infrastructure. Which brings us to the next point…

2. Don’t make misleading claims

‘Recyclable’ – it’s what consumers want to hear, and it may be technically true, but whilst a material is technically recyclable, the infrastructure to capture it and recycle it may be lacking. Variations in regional collection infrastructure across the UK and Europe mean whilst some materials may be recyclable in one country they may be less so in others.

Compostables and bioplastics are a case in point. Consumers may like the idea that your packaging is compostable, but can the consumer recycle these in their household composter? If not, does their council collect the material? Probably not. So, they have to throw it in the residual bin, the contents of which will either be burnt for energy or landfilled. So, all your good intentions for engaging your customers have quite literally gone to waste.

These are the kind of questions you need to ask before making any grand announcements, because your brand’s reputation will only suffer when campaigners call you out. Right now, any negative impact a brand sustains will be magnified by world events and, more than ever, best avoided.

3. Make positive choices for your brand by engaging your customers

It’s safe to say your green credentials have never meant so much to so many, and they need to be effectively communicated so customers know they’re making environmentally positive choices. The key to this is meaningful engagement.

Find out what your customers really want. Tell them what you’re trying to do and what your plans are. Explain the choices you’ve made and why. Communicate regularly and, although it may be counter-intuitive, admit when things haven’t gone to plan.

Consumers appreciate change is not easy, but they do expect organisations to be honest about what they are doing, so give specific examples on how you’re tackling the plastics challenge within your business. You’ll find this far more effective than releasing tepid statements about your overarching green initiatives.

The opportunity for those who get all this right is huge. In fact, management consulting firm McKinsey estimates that adopting circular-economy principles could not only benefit Europe environmentally and socially but could also generate net economic growth of €1.8 trillion by 2030.

Easy answers and quick fixes are not going to solve the plastics problem, and for marketing teams, branding, product protection and ease of use need to remain paramount. Before succumbing to the temptation to greenwash your brand image, take time to consider the true impact of your decisions. Engagement, research and honesty are the best way to balance the needs of your brand with your environmental responsibilities.

Michael Bennett is managing director of Pelican Communications, a specialist in the environmental issues affecting the food, packaging, logistics and waste industries.


Do you want to know more about brand strategy? Our online course offers professionals the chance to develop their strategic marketing planning skills. Find out more here with our Marketing and Brand Strategy course.

How else can brands prove their commitment to sustainability? Visit our brand new sustainable transformation hub for content on all things green. 

Michael Bennett Marketing director Pelican Communications
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