The recent PRCA webinar, ‘Creating authentic sustainability communications strategies’, got us thinking about how what is expected from the responsible company has moved on since many thought it was OK to stick a ‘we care for the environment’ logo on your website and never give the issue another thought.
Greenwashing is an ever-growing issue in the world of PR, especially as a new wave of consumers is becoming more environmentally conscious, as well as more aware of what’s the real deal and what’s fakery for the optics. Companies can walk a fine line between having their say in environmental and social issues for the sake of it, and turning a blind eye entirely. So what role can PR and communications play in corporate sustainability strategies? And when should companies be communicating about sustainability?
It stands to reason that the best way for companies to avoid being accused of greenwashing is to start with the basics, and make sure sustainability really is at the heart of their corporate strategy. Simply having sustainability as a branch of a communications plan isn’t meaningful enough, and as Adam Lake of UK-based non-profit organisation, the Climate Group, explained during the webinar, this won’t do any good for businesses in the long run.
There is the temptation for companies to take the easy route and make superficial changes that look good to the consumer. Eva De Keyser from plant-based dairy alternative company Alpro noted that her consumers tend to be very focused on the immediate, or issues that are ‘in front of their eyes’, such as packaging, despite the fact that other measures such as using environmentally sustainable ingredients makes much more of an impact in terms of sustainability. Companies often face a choice: to make meaningful change that might not generate a big PR story, or make minor changes that have less of an impression, just to please consumers.
So at what point does communication become greenwashing? Lake commented that it’s more about what you do, not why you do it – so as long as businesses are delivering on their promises, they’re well within their rights to shout about their sustainability stories. Perhaps more controversially, De Keyser said that companies might start off caring more about reputation, and eventually end up implementing positive change for the right reasons.
Though meaningful change might not always look as glamorous, consumers will see through greenwashing in the long run. By all means shout about company successes, but make sure a ‘nice story’ is not all there is to it.