Caring about the environment has gone mainstream.
More and more consumers are eager to make eco-conscious purchases. In fact, 57% of consumers interviewed were willing to change their buying habits to protect the environment, according to an IBM Consumer survey.
Unsurprisingly, companies are trying to jump on this bandwagon, promising they’re doing their bit to protect the environment. Which would be great—if only they delivered on those promises.
Presenting yourself as an environmentally conscious brand in order to capitalise on changing customer demands has risks, no matter how sincere your intentions are.
Even if you really are instigating change at your company in order to be more planet-friendly, you might still fall into the trap of greenwashing.
In fact, in a 2021 study, the European Commission audited websites to find examples of greenwashing. The study found that in 42% of cases, green claims were exaggerated, false, or deceptive. And in 37% of cases, green claims included vague and unsubstantiated statements. That’s nearly half the websites included in the study guilty of greenwashing.
So, what does greenwashing mean and how can you avoid it?
What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing describes any behaviour or activities that kid consumers into thinking a company is doing more to look after the environment than it really is.
In marketing, this means companies investing more time and resources into appearing sustainable and environmentally sound (for example, using green buzzwords and making vague but impressive claims) than they are into actually being sustainable and environmentally sound.
What Are the Dangers of Greenwashing?
Well, first of all, your investors will be turned off by it. In the Quilter Investors 2021 Global Outlook, greenwashing was revealed to be a primary concern for 44% of ESG investors.
Similarly, government bodies and independent regulators—not to mention the media—are increasingly on the lookout for cases of greenwashing and you risk serious damage to your reputation if you get caught.
In fact, greenwashing can even have legal ramifications. Both the Federal Trade Commission in the US and the Competition and Markets Authority in the UK now have laws that regulate sustainability claims online. Furthermore, in the UK, there’s a Green Claims Code specifically designed to discourage greenwashing and help consumers make more informed purchases.
How to Steer Clear of Greenwashing in Marketing Copy
You probably think there’s no danger of greenwashing in your marketing. After all, you’re not a liar. You would never get caught fibbing about your company’s performance.
But unintentional greenwashing is actually pretty common. It’s not just about deliberate cover-ups and misinformation.
For example, have you ever used certain visual cues with green associations, such as leaf imagery or photographs of nature, to create an eco-friendly vibe? Unless your company really is taking steps to be more eco-friendly, then this is considered greenwashing.
Similarly, if you boast on your website about using natural or pure ingredients, this is also greenwashing, because these terms don’t have concrete definitions and could leave the consumer unable to make an informed purchase.
And if you find yourself boasting about some eco-friendly act when all you’re doing is following standard legislation, that’s another case of greenwashing. Like those restaurants that smugly highlight how they no longer use plastic straws—when single-use plastic was actually banned in the UK in 2020. Taking credit for doing something mandatory isn’t the same as being proactively environmentally conscious.
And so greenwashing is more complicated than it initially seems—and avoiding it can be tricky for brands who still want to create persuasive and high-impact copy.
Here are some guidelines to help you on your path to truly eco-friendly marketing.
7 Tips for Going Green Without Greenwashing
1. Be Honest
It almost goes without saying that you need to tell the truth about your environmental efforts. Ensure that your marketing team is 100% clear on what they can and can’t say. Proofread any materials before they’re published to be sure that nothing slips through the net.
And not telling the truth doesn’t necessarily mean lying. It can also include any irrelevant, exaggerated, or unsubstantiated claims. Cherry-picking truths and half-truths are just as bad as outright fibs so make sure you’re certain about what you’re saying and don’t try to conceal anything with vague claims. Otherwise, your readers may become sceptical and you could lose customers in the long run.
For example, in 2021, Oatly claimed that oat milk was good for the planet. But after processing, packaging, and shipping, it still has a hefty carbon footprint. What they should have said was that it was simply less damaging to the planet than cow’s milk. Of course, this isn’t nearly as impressive or catchy. But it is the truth.
So, avoid hyperbole and sweeping claims. Stick to those you can back up. Modesty in marketing isn’t as persuasive but when it comes to sustainability, it’s the safest bet.
If your environmental credentials aren’t as awe-inspiring as you’d like them to be, own up to that. Talk about areas for improvement. If you don’t make your trade-offs clear, your audience might do their own research and find out for themselves. This might result in negative reviews that could do your brand a lot of harm. So, get there first. Confess your failings. Your audience will respect your honesty.
Trust is essential for all companies but even more for those that pride themselves on being sustainable and ethical. Lose your customers’ trust and you lose them. It’s much better to promise less and deliver more than be caught claiming things you can’t back up.
2. Focus on Your Customer
You’re there to serve your audience. Show that what you do matters to them. Why should they care about your environmental activities? What value do eco-friendly materials offer? How does your carbon-neutral shipping and delivery service improve their lives?
Make it about your customer. Answer their pain points. Provide solutions to their problems. When writing product descriptions, in particular, highlight the benefits that certain features of your product or service will bring to them.
The reusable coffee cup company Keepcup has an entire page dedicated to benefits. These go beyond simply being an excellent alternative to disposable cups. A splashproof lid “allows room for your nose” and their cups are also easy to disassemble for cleaning.
3. Stay Away from Buzzwords and Clichés
It’s important to avoid hackneyed and overused sustainability phrases for two reasons. Firstly, we’ve heard them so many times at this point that they’ve lost all their power and no longer inspire excitement or enthusiasm.
What’s more, they are examples of greenwashing. Their ambiguity means they can leave readers confused and unable to make an informed purchasing decision.
These words include terms like pure, natural, and organic. There are no legal regulations stating who can and can’t use these words. And if your ingredient list includes things that are actually far from natural, then you’re going to be in trouble.
Other terms that mean nothing but create a certain impression include farm-fresh or naturally sourced, non-toxic, clean, or even hormone-free. Savvy consumers are getting wise to the fact that these terms don’t prove anything and will be turned off.
That said, you can use these words but always back them up with evidence rather than relying on the term alone to do the heavy lifting. If your baby toys are made of non-toxic wood, what does that actually mean? What kind of wood are they made from and why is that a superior choice?
The term recyclable is often found in cases of greenwashing. Sticking a label on your packaging that says recyclable with no further details confuses the buyer as to whether it’s the packaging or the product that’s recyclable. Similarly, claiming that your packaging is 50% more recyclable than before, when before it was only 1% recyclable, is not nearly as impressive as it seems.
4. Use the Right Tone of Voice
When it comes to sustainability copywriting, it’s crucial to avoid dull and dreary industry speak. Not only is it uninspiring and unengaging but it might also be seen as an attempt to conceal the truth.
Your audience will feel alienated if you use words they don’t know without defining them. So, avoid industry jargon and abbreviations that your audience won’t understand.
These include terms like closed loop, circular economy, CDP (Carbon Disclosure Project), or SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). Instead of using abbreviations like GHG, use the more commonly used term greenhouse gases. Otherwise, your readers may feel like you’re trying to fob them off with fancy language.
So, keep it simple and accessible. Provide definitions whenever necessary. Talk like you’d talk to a friend.
Another great way to keep your content accessible is to translate it into concrete and easy-to-understand concepts. For example, if your eco-friendly packaging saves 90 tons of plastic a year, turn that into something easier to visualise. For example, 90 tonnes is roughly the same weight as 15 killer whales. Suddenly, the claim becomes a whole lot more engaging and interesting.
Similarly, making your sustainability content more personal is a good way to keep it compelling and down-to-earth. For example, on your About Us page, tell us why being eco-friendly matters to you. Do you remember the exact moment when you decided you wanted to try and protect the planet? Do you have a personal experience of the effects of pollution?
Of course, you should only do this if it’s true. Made-up stories about environmental awakenings on the shores of some Thai island risk sounding hollow and cliché if they’re not based on fact.
For more about nailing the right tone of voice for your brand, check out our guide here.
5. Stay Specific
Rather than making claims and hoping people will take your word for it, show people what you’re doing with concrete evidence.
Get down to the nitty-gritty. Don’t just talk about your packaging being eco-friendly. Tell customers what it’s made of and why that’s good for the planet. Why should they care that you’re using cornstarch rather than single-use plastic? What benefits does it have?
Similarly, rather than just telling readers that you care about your employees, use photographs, quotes, and detailed descriptions of working conditions to show everything you’re doing to ensure their well-being.
Statistics are a great way to get specific. Sticking to data is a safe choice as data can’t lie and it allows you to highlight the good things you are doing without the risk of over-promising. Even better if you present your data in a way that is easy to understand such as with videos or infographics.
6. Highlight Your Credentials and Certifications
Sometimes a badge says it better than words ever could. So, if you have any certifications from organisations such as the Forest Stewardship Council (which certifies products made from materials from responsibly managed forests) or the Responsible Business Standard in the UK, then put these front and centre on your website.
People trust third-party endorsements. We have more confidence in products that have been externally validated by a non-biased organisation. These certificates are proof that companies are walking the walk, not just talking the talk.
Other credentials that consumers trust include:
- Certified B Corporation
- Certified Carbon Neutral
- Rainforest Alliance Certified
- Fair Trade Certificate
7. Avoid Doom and Gloom
When talking about the environment, it’s easy to fall into the trap of fearmongering. After all, a lot of climate news is depressing and scary. But people want to feel motivated and encouraged, not defeated.
For example, telling people that their grandchildren will suffer as a result of their actions is just going to annoy them or leave them depressed and paralysed.
So, stay optimistic. Give people hope. Turn negative statements into positive ones.
For example, rather than telling people that the average pair of jeans emits the same amount of CO2 as driving 620 miles in a car tell them that your jeans are made from organic cotton and so produce nearly 50% less CO2 than non-organic jeans. This will inspire them to take action more than scaring or guilt-tripping them.
Going Green Without Greenwashing
A joint study by Visual GPS and YouGov found that 81% of people polled expect companies to be environmentally conscious in their advertising and communications.
But persuading customers that you really are a planet-first company takes skill. People are on the lookout for greenwashing and with so many headlines forecasting climate catastrophe, we’re also becoming increasingly indifferent to talk of rising sea levels and floating islands of plastic.
A skilled sustainability copywriter can communicate your message, build a connection and trust with readers, and encourage action, all while ensuring that your brand image stays genuine and authentic. It’s worth the effort. 34% of people have knowingly paid more for ‘green’ products post-Covid-19.
At Lime Copywriting, we take sustainability copywriting seriously. Our team of talented writers can help you craft content and copy that grows brand awareness, tapping into those feelings and thoughts that drive conscious consumers, inspiring engagement, and generating leads and sales.