Can the Ad World Kick Its Greenwashing Habit?

21 04 2023


With Earth Day approaching and stricter laws on the horizon in the EU and the UK, figures from the creative industries take stock. F

rom • Reposted: April 21, 2023

Greenwashing. We’ve been talking about it for years, but still many brands are struggling to kick the habit. Whether it’s deliberately making false claims about carbon emissions, or (intentionally or unintentionally) hiding a toxic company behind a comforting cloud of fluffy, feel-good green haze, it’s a practice that lingers like pollution.

And it appears that regulators and governments have lost their patience too. In March 2023, the European Union proposed the Green Claims Directive, a beefed up regime to hold businesses accountable for misleading the public about the sustainability of their products and services. In France, erroneous sustainability claims have been a legal matter since 2021.  In the UK, the Competitons and Markets Authority (CMA) has been working to clarify guidance on greenwashing and has been taking brands, such as boohoo, ASDA and Coca-Cola to task, and the upcoming digital markets, competition and consumer bill could see brands face eye-watering fines

So, with the stick coming in to take the place of the carrot, how can brands and agencies skill up and clean up their act?

Rob McFaul, co-founder, Purpose Disurptors

How do we avoid greenwashing? It’s a question that comes up nearly every time we onboard a new agency to the #ChangeTheBrief Alliance, our sustainability and climate learning programme for the industry. It’s a signal that the industry is recognising they need to skill up and fast, especially as greenwashing moves up the regulatory agenda.

We all need to be sustainability professionals now. We all need to be comfortable asking the right questions of the brands we work with, and become familiar with the net zero pathway for a brand’s sector: What changes are required and when? What are the brand’s actions in response to reaching net zero? Are brands being transparent and ambitious enough in their current actions and future ambitions? 

Essentially, we need to shift our perception of sustainability as just a slogan toward understanding it as a clearly defined pathway for that brand to transition to reach net zero. If we can’t find the answers to our questions… 

Then take a moment to pause. 

You could be greenwashing. 

Greenwashing only maintains business as usual and delays the transformation we know we need to create a thriving future. 

Juan Jose Posada, CCO, Grey Columbia

I think the creative industry – maybe as a reflection of the people that make it – has been, for years, pushing for more responsible, more environmentally concerned brands on all fronts: design-wise, communicationally, and with the products themselves.

However, the pace of these changes has been too slow and totally insufficient. If manufacturers, brands, communication actors and society can’t understand change needs to happen at a faster pace and in a more honest way, then regulators will have to step in. It will take everyone’s effort; we’re simply not doing enough as a society who’s self-inflicting at a faster pace than it is healing its wounds.

But also, one thing that has bothered me – having taken part in many initiatives seeking popular support – is how indifferent people can be. It is heartbreaking.

People are watching closely and judging greenwashing mercilessly, so for brands it just isn’t worth taking the risk.

Valerie Richard, Head of corporate social responsibility, BETC Paris

In France, advertising’s accountability about climate change has been heavily questioned during the last few years. The public debate ended up with reinforced regulations and new legislations introduced. Advertisements now have to include messages with an environmental argument to fight against greenwashing. In 2021, these measures lead to the signing of the Climate & Resilience law that regulates some types of advertising. For example, it is now forbidden for an advertiser to claim that a product or a service is carbon-neutral without precise proof or detailed efforts. Brands can lead themselves to financial sanctions otherwise. Also, ads for automotive brands are now regulated and have to include the environmental rating of the car shown. This rating varies from ‘A’ (low CO2 emission) to ‘G’ (high emission of CO2). 

As you know, French people love to debate endlessly. And these measures have opponents and supporters. In a more objective way, a 2022 Greenflex/ADEME survey indicates that 84% of people in France need to see proof in order to believe a brand’s commitment to the environment. It constitutes a four point increase to the same 2021 survey. The survey also demonstrates that only 30% of French people generally trust large companies – a significant drop from a number that was close to 58% between 2004 and 2016. So, even though we have strict regulations in place, there is still a lot of trust to gain between brands and consumers.

Facing this enormous challenge that we have to overcome against the climate crisis, we need to go beyond regulations. As communication professionals, it is our duty to orient brands towards a type of advertising that is clearer about actual commitments. We are also blessed with a superpower: our creativity and our unique ability to make products and lifestyles appealing. Now is the time to make the need for urgent global environmental action sexy.

Ad Net Zero

Greenwashing may be unintentional, leading to accidental or even well-meaning greenwashing. No matter how it happens, there is simply no place for misleading environmental claims, given the importance of people trusting the advertising of sustainable products and services.

As the world transitions towards a net zero economy, it is vital that advertisers and brands can showcase everything they can offer. Ad Net Zero has a training qualification to help people working in the advertising and marketing services industry. This includes providing an understanding of the regulatory landscape, reviewing examples of rulings by regulators – for example, in the UK, the ASA – and providing global examples for those taking the international training. It also offers practical tips for anyone working in advertising, such as ‘greenwash checks’ for client work, how to upskill their teams in an engaging way, and how to proactively reframe existing work if needed.

Over 1,000 people from across 130 companies have taken the training to date, and we encourage everyone to sign up.

We also recommend everyone keep an eye out for rule updates. We try to make this simpler for supporters by providing updates from the ASA and in addition, the CMA, which has green claims guidance. Both these organisations also offer supportive information on their websites.

Alex Thompson, strategic planner, Ardmore

As long as sustainability is an important issue for consumers, greenwashing remains a problem to be solved for brands and agencies. Advertising performance is directly tethered to brand reputation, and marketers will always pursue avenues that benefit this metric – sustainability messaging included.

The pending EU and UK regulations may therefore be a double-edged sword. It’s great that efforts are being made to help stave off dubious eco claims, but we may see businesses hop off the sustainability train if it becomes more laborious to shout about it in their advertising. Reputation will always be a strong motivator for brands to change behaviour for the better, and sustainability is no different. 

The rub is that we need a real, quantifiable proposition. You can’t market something if the claims don’t stack up, and so for marketers, this means calling out unsubstantiated statements to deliver campaigns that are both impactful and transparent. We must ensure that marketing activity is built on strong foundations of data and insights, so that greenwashing isn’t an issue.

For this to work, brands must also be honest about what they can promote, and recognise that it’s okay if the changes to their sustainability practice have been incremental. Consumers will always respect and appreciate a willingness to progress and improve.

Ardmore is on its own sustainability journey, and key to our commitment to deliver a sustainable model for advertising is acknowledging that Rome wasn’t built in a day. So, whilst it’s tempting to present your green machinations as transformative and revolutionary, just showing that you’re moving in the right direction can go a long way.

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