The Greenwashing Conundrum : Why marketers need to be cautious

General By Jeff Thomas | Jun 02, 2022
Jeff Thomas writes in today's column about how marketers can have a profound impact on nurturing positive consumer behaviour.


Consumers have become increasingly conscious of their carbon footprint and its effects on the environment is forcing businesses to respond. Yet, despite the ever increasing number of campaigns and brand conversations, there seems to be inadequate action.

Several corporations continue to do little to nothing about their unsustainable manufacturing practices and perpetuate greenwashing propaganda to put the onus of environmental responsibility solely on consumers. However, the emerging D2C segment in India shows a lot of promise with several start-ups prioritising sustainability as a core operating principle.

But do conscious consumers get what they expect upon buying seemingly “green” commodities? 

In many cases, they do not. This is mainly due to misrepresentation created by years of greenwashing, now accelerated through smart and timely social media interventions across Earth Day, Environment Day, Pollution Day, and its likes. Putting environmental responsibility as a bucket in the marketing calendar not only implies a disregard for the imminent ecological threat to the planet but also corners the dialogue on environmental sustainability to a few days in the year. The largest corporate polluters dominate the share of voice on these occasions with massive media budgets allocated for this very purpose.

Greenwashing has a few identifiable attributes. Product claims about its eco-friendliness are presented in arbitrary and amorphous terms which are hard to quantify, measure, or empirically validate. 

Words such as “natural,” “organic”, “eco-friendly,” “green,” and other similar terms are used with complementary visual graphics that evoke “ethical” sentiments. Collectively, these copy and design collaterals try to imply a sense of corporate responsibility without actually delivering in any tangible or meaningful manner.

Greenwashing poses a variety of challenges to conscious marketers and consumers at large. For starters, it is misleading and uses deceptive tools to take advantage of consumer consciousness towards genuine environmental issues.

Secondly, it hurts legitimate eco-friendly businesses that are bringing innovative and sustainable alternatives to the market. These are often small and emerging start-ups which have a fraction of the advertising budgets spent by the market leader.

Eco-friendly businesses are hence forced to compete, particularly on horizontal multi-vendor marketplaces against larger players that have not borne the cost of becoming more sustainable. 

These factors could potentially culminate into a dangerous situation where genuinely sustainable businesses become economically unsustainable, leaving room only for callous corporations to control and dominate the market.
 
If consumers cannot have an accurate understanding of what truly is a sustainable commodity, then they will often be misled into buying products with false claims, eventually hampering their faith in all kinds of environmental initiatives. 

Why do consumers fall for greenwashing? 

Adverse selection and asymmetric information are at the heart of this problem. There is considerable disparity in what different stakeholders know about a company’s environmental practices, and their ability to know more. 

Consumers rarely have a complete view of how an item is produced and cannot fully research this. They end up relying on the claims made by the seller.
 
Complexity is also another equally important factor. There are several environmentally responsible policies a company can adopt but what objectively constitutes a sustainable or eco-friendly product is not a straightforward concept. For example, do we consider levels of greenhouse gas emission? Is it sustainable use of soil and water? Is it participation in a circular economy? Is it pollution control? Or restoration of biodiversity and ecosystems? 

UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) lists these and several more diverse factors to assess corporate sustainability. Which means, it is possible for a company to have strong eco credentials in one aspect whilst simultaneously causing damage through another. It is often a complex assessment process to validate holistic sustainability claims; one that is beyond the capacity of average consumers and tedious even for small to medium manufacturers and retailers.
 
How can marketers make a difference? 

Marketers can have a profound impact on nurturing positive consumer behaviour. As the means through which companies channel green messages into public consciousness, the marketing and advertising industry can play a gatekeeper’s role in ensuring only valid claims are presented to consumers. 

Consumers and investors can drive change through their spending power only if free, transparent and accurate data remains the backbone of sustainability initiatives. 

This can be particularly interesting and challenging for account planners in advertising agencies who often debate the effectiveness of emotional levers as opposed to rational communication when working on social purpose campaigns.
 
As the push for environmentally friendly practices gathers pace across societies, conscious marketers need to combine their research and communication framing capabilities to develop consumer resilience against “green” malpractices and help us as a society make a timely switch to truly sustainable alternatives. 

The author, Jeff Thomas is Chief Strategy Officer at Digitally Inspired Media, an integrated advertising agency (a member of afaqs! Marketplace), and is currently working on a climate-tech solution for the retail sector.

Chennai Eco-Friendly Businesses Environmental Consciousness Greenwash Marketing Integrated Advertising Agency