Green marketing or just a ‘green sheen’?

By Lisa Nicholson on Sep 23, 2021

Fake it ’til you make it won’t cut it anymore.

The recent IPCC report [1] paints a very stark picture on the gravity of the climate crisis, Ed Hawkins, a professor at University of Reading said:

“We are already experiencing climate change, including more frequent and extreme weather events, and for many of these impacts there is no going back.”

Try as some might, the link between humans and the climate cannot be denied. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s just how much impact our daily lives can have on the planet. During 2020 when the world “locked down”, one of the few positives to emerge was the reduction in air pollution, improvements in water quality and nature starting to bounce back on a global scale. Society, in general, is now more conscious than ever of their impact on the environment and are looking for ways to do more. 52% of people are now making purchase decisions based on a brands’ eco credentials, and more than a third say they have stopped buying specific food and drink products due to sustainability concerns. [2]

The trend towards green marketing among brands is ever rising, everyone’s going green and it’s easy to think that everyone’s doing their bit for the environment, but are they? While some brands and organisations are authentic sustainability champions and are proactively doing their bit to minimise their impact on the environment, many simply aren’t.

Many businesses spend more time and money marketing themselves as green than they do actually reducing their impact. In fact, this ‘green sheen’ can have some significant detrimental effects, including:

– Consumers being misled into believing their purchases of a particular brand or product are helping the environment, when in fact any impact is negligible (if at all).

– Overshadowing the work being done by businesses genuinely trying to offset their carbon footprint.

– Distracting people from the bigger picture, to divert attention from any poor environmental practices.

Additionally, whilst in the short term a company may see a boost from their green credentials, the long-term effect of misleading consumers can lead to a swift backlash across media channels. This can cause reduced sales, boycotts and in some cases, legal action.

These attempts by large brands to promote an eco-friendly stance, that isn’t then followed through, is sadly not uncommon. Despite many of us not being aware (I know a number of these surprised me), here are some troubling examples of this in practice:

– McDonald’s switch to ‘eco-friendly’ paper straws, that weren’t actually recyclable [3]

– H&M’s clothes recycling bins only actually recycling 35% of what’s collected. [4]

– Nestlé USA’s chocolate labelled products as ‘sustainably sourced’ when the supply chain has no environmental standards in place. [5]

So, now that we are all looking at that “ethically sourced” claim with a cynical eye, what next? How can we know if we can trust a brand’s eco-credentials? Or if their efforts to be sustainable are merely a ‘green sheen’? Unfortunately, right now it is down to the savvy consumer to do their research, not get bought in to the hype and remember that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

The good news is that with increased awareness of ‘greenwashing’ practices and significant consumer interest in sustainability, more pressure is being put on the industry to do the right thing, meaning more watchdogs and data to help people see through the ‘green sheen’. This will hopefully in turn push the industry to be more transparent and stop hiding behind empty pledges and marketing initiatives.

Climate change is upon us, it’s time now more than ever for us all to act.