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Creating an Honest Eco Strategy: Why Greenwashing Doesn't Work

Alex Miller
Alex Miller

Greenwashing is a short-term strategy that may lead to long-term harm for your brand.

As consumers have woken up to the impact of lifestyle choices on our planet, the business world has come to realize that eco credentials are more important than ever. More and more of us are demanding sustainable product sourcing, less reliance on cheap labor and even locally sourced products. And the demand for these products is only set to grow.

In fact, not having green credentials in this day and age can be such a detriment to your brand that businesses can expect to lose out to competitors who have either gone zero waste or carbon neutral. But in real terms, how does a business eco strategy really affect turnover, and are there easy ways to get around it?

Global demand for green products

From sustainably sourced clothing or organic food, to utility companies who depend on renewable sources, most people are aware that by paying a little bit more to protect our natural environment we can feel more satisfied that we've done our bit. With the news regularly highlighting environmental catastrophes and the seeming reluctance of many governments to do anything about it, the individual's product choices are one of the most effective ways to demonstrate our commitment to the cause. In fact, a 2018 survey found that nearly 75 percent of millennial consumers were prepared to pay more for goods that are eco-friendly. 

For business, tapping into this growing market means you'll be broadening your appeal to more than half of global consumers, which is surely an appealing demographic for most. Some of the most high profile examples of this are companies such as Patagonia, which have been leading the way for the major clothing brands with their aim to reduce production waste, create products that last a lifetime and become entirely sustainable in their operations. Their eco credentials are well publicized and their value as a business has gone from around $20 million in the late '80s through to being worth around more than a billion dollars today. Plainly, being green sells, even though this isn’t their raison d'etre.

The knock on effect of this is that many new businesses and startups, especially in clothing and apparel, are touting their green credentials straight off the bat. Local sourcing, minimal waste, sustainable materials and a high-quality product have become perhaps more important than the ultra-low price tag that many have become accustomed to in recent years.

An example of this is in the trend of using untraditional materials for products – think hemp shirt, wool shoes, ocean-plastic water bottles. These new methods aim to replace traditional materials, such as cotton. With the global cotton industry being responsible for devastating environmental impact including diverting of fresh waters, overuse of chemicals and pesticides, and mismanagement, especially in Asian countries like Pakistan, India, and China, the use of sustainable materials has become more appealing. Making such changes that impact people, economy and planet are at the core of what it means to be an ethical brand.

The practice of greenwashing

But are there ways for businesses to claim green credentials and not really meet them? The practice of greenwashing is exactly that, where a business will claim they are environmentally sustainable but in reality, they either meet the absolute minimum standards or worse, they pollute in other aspects of their supply chain, thereby negating their green gains.

Some famous examples of greenwashing include Starbucks' attempt in 2018 to make a strawless cup and lid, which actually contained more plastic than their original cups. Companies like Unilever or even Nike, which plainly make strides to reduce their environmental impact throughout production, are still guilty of perpetuating the disposable culture we've become accustomed to. These companies are perhaps too big to fail, so any attempt to make a show of being eco-friendly works well for their marketing and public perception, but the reality is that only around 10 to 25 percent of recyclable materials are recycled globally. 

So yes, Unilever can produce packaging that is recyclable, or Nike can produce their shoes and clothing from sustainably sourced cotton, but they will still end up in a landfill at the end of their relatively short life.

Creating an honest eco strategy

With this in mind, what can companies do to showcase an honest and sustainable eco strategy?

Aiming to be zero waste is an accessible goal for all companies and one that can be used to minimize expenditure as well as boost green cred. Likewise, companies that manufacture products can aim to reduce their wastewater, their use of chemicals in production or their offcuts of materials. But the true test of an eco strategy is in the fact that it is built not for your marketing or PR reputation, but as a way to truly minimize the impact of a business on the planet.

Using packaging that is biodegradable and uses the minimum of resources in its manufacturing is something that any business would be proud to claim. Additionally, using products that are entirely organically sourced, made from plant-based materials or that will stand the test of time and genuinely last a lifetime (or more) are all ways to win the trust of your customers and be a genuinely eco-friendly business.

Although those big businesses might be too entrenched in the wasteful ways of the past, they can still win the trust of consumers in other ways, even if their production isn’t meeting the green standards we expect in the modern age. Reforestation, reducing the use of polluting chemicals, the support of habitat protection for places like coral reefs and rainforest, funding of eco-friendly ventures such as solar powering communities or even helping to pioneer technology to make production less impacting on our world.

With the billions that companies like Apple, Amazon and Nike make, they can easily divert their huge resources to making our world a genuinely better place and making their green credentials genuinely count for something.

Image Credit: / Shutterstock
Alex Miller
Alex Miller Member
Alex Miller is an Analyst at Clutch, a Washington, DC based B2B ratings and reviews website that highlights leading software and professional services firms. He is responsible for the cloud research segment at Clutch. Alex is originally from Dalton, PA and has a Bachelor's Degree from The George Washington University.