Branding and Marketing 'Eco' Values While Avoiding Greenwashing
Your branding is how your business looks to the outside world.
Your marketing is the process of taking your business to the outside world.
And in a world that’s becoming more and more conscious of where everything comes from and where everything goes, sustainability is becoming vital to both branding and marketing.
So how can a brand that values conservation strike a balance between branding and marketing?
Without a doubt, bad marketing will hinder even the best marketing efforts, and perfect branding won’t be seen if marketing isn’t up to scratch.
Throw sustainability, doing good for the environment, and greenwashing into the mix and the challenges for small brands only stack up.
But how do you create a symbiotic relationship between all these elements?
This article will dive deep into this conundrum, so you what not to do, and leave you with branding and marketing ideas to aid an already sustainable image, or one that’s slowly becoming more sustainable.
Why sustainability is important
As more and more consumers demand eco-conscious options, companies, both large and small, are adapting to this shift in demand.
Some brands are reinventing themselves from the ground up (Ben & Jerrys and their ethics), developing ground-breaking environmental policies (Stella McCartney and lab-grown silk) that are at the core of each and every business decision.
Others are treating this new priority of customer’s as nothing more than a trend, while still trying to profit off it (Nestle marketing ethically sourced chocolate when the supply chain is untraceable).
But the truth is that 73% of millennials are willing to pay more for a sustainable product. Therefore, brands can either adapt and position themselves at the forefront of eco-conscious consumerism, or get left behind.
And we’re already starting to see this ‘shift’. Brands that are born, or rebrand themselves with sustainability in their DNA to help raise brand awareness, whereas others that have done the bare minimum - or absolutely nothing at all - while still trying to leverage this buying sentiment.
And your branding and marketing are the channels most used to communicate these values to your customers.
How you use these parts of your brand to communicate is paramount to building a rapport and establishing the longevity of your brand.
Using buzzwords and making unsubstantiated claims to explain how your brand is ‘eco-friendly’ is only going to damage your reputation and your sales. This is greenwashing, and not even the biggest brands in the world can get away with it.
What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing is most easily defined as using vagueness and half-truths to make claims that a business’s products, policies, and goals are environmentally friendly, with profit being of a higher priority than environmental welfare.
Greenwashing happens in many ways, but for brands selling a physical product, it’s most commonly seen as:
- Companies that spend more time marketing an ‘eco-friendly’ product or policy than they do assessing that product’s impact on the environment.
- Companies that push certain materials as being better for the environment, when these products do more harm than good.
Greenwashing can happen on multiple levels - at a product level, when a brand draws attention to something that’s ‘eco-friendly’ when it’s simply a cost-cutting measure. It can also happen brand-wide when a business bases its entire operations on something that’s seemingly eco-friendly but isn’t.
Greenwashing in marketing
Clothing giant H&M is a major player in the world of fast, disposable fashion. In an attempt to change its image, H&M launched a ‘conscious collection’, stating that “every piece in the collection is made from sustainably sourced material, such as 100% organic cotton or recycled polyester.
The collection was quickly taken off shelves in Norway, with the government stating “The information on [H&M’s website] was general, and did not specify the actual environmental benefit for each garment specifically, such as the amount of recycled material in each garment".
If H&M genuinely cared for the environment, it wouldn’t be creating a new range of clothing en mass every several weeks.
Ethics also come into play when discussing greenwashing. Building a sustainable brand is great, but not if it comes at the expense of human happiness or animal suffering.
For example, Chinese manufacturers of Apple products have suicide nets around their factories so overworked staff can’t kill themselves.
Greenwashing in branding
In the above examples, you’ve seen how massive brands greenwash on a product level.
But there are some examples of brands whose imagery, branding, and even their name imply that they’re an eco-friendly brand.
This often stems from the fact that words like ‘green’, ‘bio’, ‘natural’, ‘sustainable’, and ‘eco-friendly’ all lack factual, clear and concise definitions.
Take, for example, The Natural Confectionery Co., a subsidiary of Cadbury which is a subsidiary of Mondolez.
The word ‘natural’ implies that it’s healthy, right? While yes, the products are free of artificial colours and flavours, they’re instead jam-packed with sugar - a naturally occurring ingredient.
Cyanide is also a naturally occurring ingredient. Trace amounts of it will kill hundreds of people.
The packaging design is also smothered with greenery - healthy-looking leaves behind the brand name, and lush foliage on the ground.
The name of the brand leverages a word that, to the unsuspecting consumer, implies that the product is ‘healthy’. Because natural = healthy, right? As consumers, we automatically assume that.
What’s more likely - the ‘natural’ ingredients used by a giant, international conglomerate are sourced from a pristine jungle like this.
Or they’re sourced from a plantation that used to once be pristine rainforest that’s now been deforested like this:
This is branding that’s used to leverage the emotion of a customer to promote a purchase. This isn’t a bad thing - in fact, good branding is all about appealing to emotions.
The problem here is that the company is using words and imagery in its branding to imply benefits that aren’t really there at all - in fact, they’re promoting benefits that aren’t even beneficial.
So now that you’re well aware of precisely what not to do, let’s take a look at brands that are doing good, and communicating it well.
Well-branded sustainable brands
Some of the most sustainable and eco-friendly brands in the world don’t base their branding, their products or their marketing material on their sustainable values.
On the website of Patagonia, the adventure-wear brand, you don’t see green leaves, and you don’t see happy animals or solar panels.
You see a statement to ‘buy less’, because the company knows that each product of theirs is a burden on the environment.
Yes, the brand’s environmental policy is second to none, but they don’t lead with that. Their narrative is that buying their product isn’t the best thing for the environment. Instead, they encourage users to visit their second-hand store and buy used.
They back this up in the way they communicate with their followers on social media.
Well-made videos that focus on the person and the concept, rather than the brand and the product. Patagonia isn’t ‘eco’ to make a profit, they’re eco because they know that they can genuinely do good for the planet.
Rather than promote their product, they’re encouraging their consumers to lower their impact on the environment by showcasing online thrift stores, different ways to recycle and how to support relevant changes in government regulations.
A massive brand that has millions of dollars flowing through it like Patagonia clearly can afford to do this - but what about on a smaller scale?
Birdsong is a London-based fashion brand. Their clothing is made in the UK by skilled female seamstresses who have barriers to employment such as employer biases, victims of abuse, disabilities or age.
Their materials are all certified as fair trade and ethically sourced, and they’re currently moving away from using organic virgin cotton and toward recycled cotton. Their products are sold online and sent all over the world using compostable mailing bags.
A visit to their website is similar to Patagonia’s - they don’t lead with eco-friendly imagery, but it’s ingrained in what they do, making it a core value that separates them from their competition.
Patagonia and Birdsong clearly have the environment at the core of what it does. Its products, policies and operations are driven by environmental welfare. That works for them, but not everyone. For others, avoiding greenwashing is a process that can’t alienate the consumer.
It doesn’t have to be perfect
Yope is a Polish soap company that sells a wide range of scented soaps, detergents and other cleaning products both online and via retail partners.
Their soaps and detergents are made from ingredients processed as minimally as possible - 90% of which are organic but aren’t certified. That’s because if they were to use certified organic ingredients, the price-point of the product would be unreachable for many consumers.
They use petroleum-based plastic pump bottles as soap dispensers, as this is the most financially viable option for a brand of their size to use. Yes, the same single-use petroleum-based plastic pump bottles that often end up in landfill and polluting waterways, taking thousands of years to break down.
But Yope also sells refills (that comes in eco-friendly packaging) and encourages customers to keep their plastic bottles and buy a refill. Yes, Yope shifts the responsibility to the consumer (a common greenwashing tactic), but it also provides an environmental alternative in the form of refills.
These refills make it cheaper and easier for a consumer to try a broader range of products, reuse that plastic bottle, and then buy a favourite on a much larger scale.
They’re also completely transparent about this. The brand knows that they’re not perfect, but will strive to keep the environment at the core of what they do and improve their processes.
If Yope were to position their brand as people completely ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘organic’, the price of products would skyrocket, and put it out of reach of the average consumer.
Reusability does more for the environment than recycling can. The brand knows that the key to getting more consumers on board with lowering waste is to promote more products being reused, and its refillable pouch model does this perfectly.
Transparency is power: and better than lying
All the brands that you’ve just seen, Patagonia, Birdsong and Yope have one thing in common - they’re transparent about what they do. They don’t shy away from their imperfections. They draw attention to their shortcomings in the form of statistics and raw data.
And being this transparent, they empower their consumer to make an informed and educated decision.
While the consumer may not be buying something that’s absolutely and positively eco-friendly and green, they’re buying a product from a company that’s taking a step in the right direction, and their purchase will foster further ‘green’ steps.
Branding your brand as being ‘eco’ friendly, and marketing your products with such value is a struggle. Consumers are quick to spot imperfections and pull you up on them. What’s most important is that you don’t shy away from said imperfections, nor the progress that you’ve made.
Finding effective ways to present your brand to the world and communicate your sustainable values will always be an ongoing project. Consistent trial and error, and innovation are the only ways to find something that works for you.
Phil Forbes is a bearded Australian living in Warsaw, Poland. When he’s not making Packhelp’s boxes look sexy, he’s at home, trying not to kill his beloved plants, or writing about Polish history and culture on his blog.