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Greenwashing puts brands at risk of short term criticism and long term failure

by Audrey Madden

October 30, 2020

Sustainability messaging will take time and resource to get right, but it is the brands who are transparent about their journey that will be remembered in years to come.

Sustainability is the number one issue. Trends are showing that consumers can no longer overlook ethical purchasing decisions. Where ‘sustainable’ used to be considered a competitive advantage, it is now a competitive necessity. The fashion industry, in particular, has been under great pressure to improve ethical processes. This is largely due to an increasingly disposable move towards fast fashion models. An estimated 200,000 tonnes of garment and textile waste ends up in landfill each year in the UK.

In 2013, Rana Plaza collapsed, killing over 1,100 and injuring 2,500 factory workers. It is considered the deadliest structural failure accident in modern human history. This incident highlighted poor labour conditions within the factory and subsequently, many other factories in Bangladesh. 29 global, well known brands were identified to be sourcing from Rana Plaza, all of which were placed in the media spotlight. This began the ‘fashion revolution.’ Subsequent documentaries, as well as growing environmental and socio-economic awareness, have placed huge pressure on fashion retailers, brands and wholesalers’ sustainability models. As a result, fashion institutes have put huge resources towards improving their business model, supply chains and marketing.

The issue the industry now faces is greenwashing. Businesses can claim to be sustainable, however, using marketing to shout about the brand being green or ethical may only be in reference to a small section of the model. When purchasing, customers want to see the purpose behind the brand and the action they are taking on specific matters. In a 2018 survey commissioned by the Changing Markets Foundation, it was found that two-thirds of consumers stated that, in an industry filled with sustainable marketing campaigns, it’s difficult to identify which brands actually meet higher ethical standards.

Companies are increasing their policies, plans and projects, however, rarely talk about the outcomes. For example, the H&M group, known for their efforts in sustainability, have recently been called out by the Norwegian Consumer Authority for greenwashing, as they failed to explain the reasoning behind certain material choices.

Effective sustainability messaging is therefore essential to a brand's success. After speaking with, Yolanda O’ Leary, brand strategist and sustainability expert, we have identified 8 key tips to marketing a brands ethical efforts.

Establish your brand purpose and values.

Once your team is aligned behind a clear brand purpose and values, make sure your operations, design processes, production standards and communication guidelines are in line with your brand purpose and values. Yolanda O’Leary says, “We need less greenwashing and more honesty. In order to communicate to their customers with integrity, it's important for brands to explain what their values are, and how this matches up to their business model and how they operate.” With this in mind, businesses should make their intentions known to their customers and be transparent about the challenges they face on their path towards sustainability. Gucci’s environmental targets are focused on creating sustainable supply chains so that they can ‘help protect and restore nature for the future’.

Focus on quality, not green.

It is important to reference concepts that consumers can relate to, like higher quality products or production. This can also help a brand to stay away from greenwashing. Toyota, for example, centres their sustainability marketing around quality. Their unique approach called ‘Kaizen’ translates to improved product, procurement, production, logistics, performance and external impact. They market their brand’s ethical choices through a better end product experience.

Appeal to the Gen Z collective mindset.

O’Leary went on to explain that, “If you think of Gen Z as a mindset, rather than a generational divide, there is a collective spirit you can see coming up through creativity and activism. This mindset recognises the benefits of collaboration. That success can be shared and amplified. Air Pangea is a progressive brand that represents this collective spirit.” Another example of an industry appealing to a collective mindset is the hotel industry, by asking guests to join their fellow guests in reusing towels to help combat environmental concerns.

Don’t educate – tell a story.

A recent study showed that only 12% of UK consumers agreed that the fashion industry informs them about environmental impacts of their purchasing decisions. It is easy for a brand to champion their efforts in an educational way, however, this is overused and consumers cannot differentiate. Instead, help to illustrate to your consumer what your brand is achieving and the impact they can help to make, turning them in to the hero.

Stay away from negative.

It is common for a brand to communicate negative impacts of purchasing decisions, however, negative instils a stress response and humans are programmed to avoid uncomfortable. Help to make your consumer feel empowered and focus on the positive outcomes they can contribute to achieving. O’Leary wants to see “more creativity, empathy and humour from brands in their communication of sustainability. Look to brands such as Onloan, communicating through an approachable and playful tone of voice paired with dynamic imagery, inspiring women to join their fashion rental community.”

Utilise easy messaging.

An easy mistake a brand can make is overcommunicating. The most successful brands manage to translate their sustainable approach in short, concise messages that grab attention and resonate in the consumer’s mind. The current retail market is filled with messaging around this topic, however, the ones that stand out are short and to the point.

For example, Nike - ‘build a better world’, Method - ‘people against dirty’ and Zappos -‘delivers happiness’.

Incorporate a circular economy model.

According to the New Standard Institute, The average consumer bought 60% more clothing in 2014 than in 2000, but kept each garment half as long. There is an ethical dilemma for sustainable fashion brands. They need to encourage customers to buy less often, whilst also trying to encourage them to purchase their products. O’Leary suggests that a solution to this is incorporating a circular economy model, which can also help to raise brand awareness. “The circular economy opens up endless opportunities for brands to operate more sustainably and innovate through new consumption and business models.”

White Bear Studio have a couple inspiring clients launching greenwashing-aware brands in the coming months -- watch this space.

Brands with meaning stand out and matter. Apply for a pro-bono Brand Brainstorm with our creative team here.


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