What is greenwash and why will it affect your construction business?

Post updated in November 2015.

Since this post was first written in 2012, CAPS [the Committee of Advertising Practice] have published new information on ‘Green claims in Advertising‘ which is well worth getting familiar with.

The UK market place is now flooded with products and services shouting about their ‘green’ credentials. There are now over 73% more ‘green’ marketed products in the UK market place today, than at the end of 2009.

Definition of greenwash: any misleading claims regarding the environmental practises of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.

With ‘green’ becoming an ever bigger message in the B2B space, why is greenwash something to worry about? Essentially, the ASA are starting to crack down on false and misleading claims, ultimately trying to prevent corporations from financially benefiting through fabricated marketing campaigns.

“For many years it’s been a bit of a free-for-all in the ‘green’ arena, but now we’re all going to have to be careful what we say, what images we use, and what impression our branding or marketing campaigns leave on our audience.”

Suzanne Golder – Content and PR Lead

Here’s how it works:

  • An advert/leaflet/radio advert/webpage/brochure states something to do with the environmental or sustainable benefits of a product/company/service,
  • Somebody sees the advert and then complains to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).
  • The ASA then open an investigation into the claim, and hire people to go investigate and see if the claim is true.
  • The ASA contact the company making the claim to let them know that they are being investigated.
  • The company must then respond within a specified time frame.
  • If they do not respond within this time frame, they are fined and the campaign is automatically banned.
  • If they do respond but the investigators reveal that there is not enough supporting evidence to support the claims made in the campaign, then they are fined, the campaigns are banned and subsequently all information relating to the investigation (including the decision) is made public on the ASA website.
  • If the ASA finds that the statements made within the campaign are either true or deemed not to be misleading to their audience, then the ASA will give permission that the campaign can continue as planned.

The more buzz that is created around greenwash, the more heightened your audience will become to marketing campaigns that are pushing the boundaries, and it only takes one complaint to instigate an investigation. There are a number of websites, and Facebook groups even, including a prominent page on the Guardian Online, where people can share links to websites, advertising etc that are ringing alarm bells. A more astute audience is going to require us all to create watertight marketing campaigns and branding.

The future IS green…

So the trouble is, how can you shout about your sustainability credentials without getting in trouble? It’s becoming increasingly important to publicise how ‘green’ your business, product or service is, if you want to secure sales, business partnerships or win pitches. It’s fast becoming the slide in your presentation that could win or lose you that all important deal, or indeed get that much needed new employee to sign on the dotted line.

“Companies should be aware of the rise in awareness of environmental and ethical issues alongside confusion and scepticism. The ASA does not want to discourage companies from communicating their initiatives but to help them to do so in a credible and responsible way.” Lord Smith, ASA Chairman

Greenwash checklist for your marketing campaigns

  • Avoid fluffy language – before you use ‘green’ language – ask yourself what it really means. Create a poll to gather research if you’re not convinced everybody will be in agreement. Stay safe by avoiding terms or phrases with no clearly definable meaning, for example ‘eco-friendly’… what does that really mean?!
  • Avoid implications or suggestions – rebrands, imagery and colour usage can all imply ‘green’ claims. Misleading your audience in this way still has the same implications as using express language in a misleading way.
  • If you’re going to make a ‘green’ claim, be certain that you can back it up – if you’re using a ‘green’ claim in any of your marketing activities, make absolutely certain that you have the supporting evidence (this could include external research or third party accreditation) to back you up.
  • Don’t make irrelevant points – if you start shouting about how brilliant you are at recycling your office paper waste, but the rest of your business is totally un-green, your claim is pretty irrelevant in the grand scheme and you could get pulled up! Best to keep quiet and not to mention it.
  • Don’t shout about being top of the class – just because you might be the ‘greenest’ company among your competitors, doesn’t mean it’s ok to broadcast this – particularly if, in the bigger picture, you’re really not that ‘green’ at all.
  • Avoid complete fabrications – quite simply, never make anything up… ever!

So who exactly has this affected so far?

Some quite big brands have been pulled up already, and the fine details of their run-in with the ASA are all available in the public domain. Household names such as Saab, McDonalds, Shell Oil, EDF Energy, have all been pulled up in recent times.

Eco Windows based in Yorkshire, famously got pulled up by a rival window company following an advert placed within regional and trade magazines. The advert showed several pictures of different designs of UPVC windows and was headlined “eco windows – economical on price – ecological on design.” The “e” of “eco” was shown in the form of a tree and the “i” of “windows” was dotted with a leaf. The advert went on to state “We supply the most up to date materials to prevent heat loss. Argon filled sealed units with K glass at no extra cost.” One reader complaint was registered against the campaign, challenging whether the claim “ecological on design” was misleading because he believed the manufacture and end of life disposal of UPVC windows had an adverse environmental impact.

The ASA upheld the complaint, finding that the advert was found to have breached CAP Code clauses 3.1 (Substantiation), 7.1 (Truthfulness), 49.1 and 49.2 (Environmental claims). The company was banned from using the phrase “ecological on design” moving forwards.

What are the real implications of this?

The chances of you getting pulled up rely on somebody complaining… and the worst that could happen is you have to pull the advert or campaign from future slots. Considering the nature of our online community, the risks to your brands reputation just aren’t worth considering. It’s a worst nightmare for your new brand identity or the marketing campaign for your new product launch to be creating a buzz on networks, social media platforms and Google – with a greenwash focus. It will more than undermine the sustainability credentials you were trying to highlight in the first instance!

Below is a handy infographic explaining what greenwash is, some statistics about green products and what claims to look out for.

Source: http://visual.ly/node/17063 | Click image to view infographic

Here are our top tips for staying squeaky clean when communicating your ‘green’ merits: sustainability and the environment can remain an important part of your marketing campaign if the messages are carefully considered and executed. Let’s stop trying to pull the wool over each other’s eyes and get real about ‘green’ benefits – and then shout it from the rooftops!

7 rules for communicating sustainability

  • 1. Optimism rules – guilt tripping potential customers or clients just doesn’t work, focus on realistic, positive messaging and avoid the ‘doom and gloom’.
  • 2. Create a sustainability ‘champion’ for your campaigns – somebody your audience aspire to, who can lead by example and really ‘liven up’ your messages and communicate them in a charismatic way. Remember, everybody needs a hero…
  • 3. Think about the bigger picture – develop your messaging based around long term, achievable goals that your audience will relate to. Focus on the things that will matter to them both next week, and in ten years time.
  • 4. Find your place within the narrative – are you a big fish, or a small fish? Where does your unique perspective sit within the wider discussion? Evaluating the conversations will help you to identify gaps in the knowledge base. Find your focus and stick to it – there’s no such thing as a ‘sustainability expert’, it’s much too big of a label to mean anything.
  • 5. The power is in the story – believable, close-to-home stories that your audience can relate to, will support your positioning and add real credibility to your sustainability ‘champion’. Focus on getting really great stories together that actually demonstrate your key messages and brand values, as this will really make a difference to your perception within your specific marketplace.
  • 6. Remember that nobody likes change – although change is coming, nobody really likes it. Try to focus on helping your audience make the little steps towards a change they won’t even notice. Attempting to convince the business community to give up their cars just isn’t going to get you anywhere.
  • 7. It’s ok to be ‘normal’ – it’s not essential to try and represent yourselves as tree-hugging hippies who only wear organic clothing. If it’s true – then great! By being personable and human in your approach, you’ll find common ground making it easier for your audience to relate to you.

If you have any further questions regarding greenwash, or how you can develop marketing campaigns that clearly communicate your sustainability credentials in the right way, then please give us a call on 01908 671 707.

About Stuart Dinnie

Stuart has worked in the world of digital marketing for over 15 years. With his measured and planned approach, he has delivered robust digital strategies for construction companies to achieve real business growth. He now heads up the team at Pauley Creative as Managing Director and is leading his team & clients towards digital marketing excellence. He’s worked with over 100 construction clients; helping them on their digital transformation journey, providing sustainable strategies that return year on year incremental growth, delivering award-winning websites and adding value from board level to marketing assistant.

One Response to “What is greenwash and why will it affect your construction business?”

  1. FairWater Paul van Beers

    Good that “GreenWashing” is exposed, also here in the Netherlands we have many examples of GreenWashed Products, especially related to charity, unfortunately.

    Question: If a juicedrink advertises that “it’s made from real juice”, but only 1% of it has real juice, they still don’t lie. Similar, when a company claims that by buying their products a percentage of the profit goes to waterprojects in Africa, but we all know that in reality the profit is a flexible administration amount, but suppose that 1% is spend on charity, but when it becomes clear that this 1% is just to support overhead of a local Africa NGO and is not making any real difference, so you don’t see where your money really goes, would you consider that also GreenWashing?

    In a way, what the say is not a complete lie, but the people who buy these products just because of the “green cause” expect to make a real contribution, while the green claim in reality is just to sell more for more profit.

    Hope to hear from you!


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