London 2012’s organisers have claimed that the Games will be the most sustainable yet. And that may be true – or partly. But the good it may have done has been all but subsumed by accusations of greenwashing.

This is the problem with greenwash: if a company’s environmental or social claims are found to be false, consumers look sceptically upon all of its marketing efforts, sustainably-focused or not. Big companies may be in the firing line, but small companies are not immune – as purveyors of greenwash, but also as victims.

Why it matters

Greenwash is receiving more media coverage than ever, according to a report by BSR consultancy and Futerra. And it’s starting to annoy consumers. “We don’t have time to screw around with false claims,” says the founder of the Greenwashing Index, which exposes environmental advertising to public scrutiny, with predictable results.

Consumers are more mistrustful. Only 44 per cent of those surveyed for the Cone Green Gap Tracker 2012 believe companies’ environmental claims. More important, 77 per cent would be willing to boycott a company if they discovered they’d been misled.

On the flipside, those consumers are also more apt to buy from companies with a strong sustainability record, while it is becoming mandatory in some supply chains. The brand-enhancing effects are well known, and it can also help smaller companies attract talent.

What to do about it

It still makes sense to include your sustainability credentials in marketing messages – just be careful what you say. Here are some takeaways from the BSR report and a Be Green post on greenwashing on what to avoid:

  • Fluffy terms and vague language – ‘eco-friendly’ and even ‘green’ can mislead. Know your biggest impacts and be precise about them, even if they present a less-than-perfect picture
  • Irrelevant claims – focusing on one ingredient that doesn’t really matter, or including out-of-date statements such as ‘no CFCs’. Make sure you’re promoting a real environmental or social achievement, not just the ‘best of bad lot’
  • Misleading images
  • Jargon – using ‘sciency’ language that you’re fairly sure the average consumer won’t understand
  • Hidden tradeoffs – producing a green product in a dirty factory or passing off items as ‘ethical’ when they’ve come out of sweatshop. The strongest messages are those that are material to your business. Otherwise, you may risk accusations that you give with one hand and taking with another
  • Fake endorsements from third parties – claiming the endorsement of environmental or other groups can land you in court. It’s also outright lying. Genuine certification sends out a strong message, because it demonstrates you’ve been vetted independently. Audits can be rigorous, though, so be prepared if you want to go down this route.

All of the greenwashing flags above also apply for SME directors themselves, who may be justifiably confused by frequent changes to environmental legislation on packaging, waste and carbon emissions. The European Commission claims it’s trying to make it easier for SMEs to comply with environmental regulations. But it’s worth applying the greenwashing rules above to any sustainability consultants who come offering audits or advice (much of which is free to UK-based SMEs.)

Keep on top of any regulation for your industry via professional bodies and NetRegs. And if you’re a quoted company, watch out for unregulated advisors eager to jump on the trend for producing socially responsible investment reports.