Selling successfully in today’s market is going to require an ironclad grasp of one basic principle: today’s consumers are looking beyond factors of cost, quality, and value when purchasing a product. Year over year, growing awareness of the climate crisis is encouraging consumers to think more about how their purchasing choices affect the environment. In other words, consumers aren’t just thinking about what a purchase can add to their lifestyle or convenience–they’re thinking about what their purchases say about them, and that’s not a new concept at all. 

Electric vehicles (EVs), biodegradable products, and items crafted from recycled or sustainably sourced materials have empowered customers to drastically reduce their individual carbon footprints, without sacrificing quality or drastically reducing their spending power. This is due in part to increased awareness of environmental concerns, the result of decades of public awareness campaigns and pro-environmental programming and education aimed at children. The kids who watched Captain Planet cartoons and celebrated Earth Day in primary school grew up, and today they manage their own household budgets with the understanding that their purchasing decisions have a concrete environmental impact. Advances in green technology and development of the market have also made sustainable products and services more accessible to more consumers, lowering costs and increasing selection. 

This combination means that the market for sustainable businesses is growing exponentially, both in economic opportunity and competition. Some companies have responded by enthusiastically pushing the  environmental benefits of their offerings, whether or not those benefits are meaningful, or even truthful. But what these companies have found, as evident to those of us in PR, is that they’re often not prepared for the backlash that comes with applying spin to green marketing. Consumers have become wary of “greenwashing,” and all businesses working within the sustainability market can and should learn from their mistakes to avoid the PR backlash and gain a competitive advantage.

What Is Greenwashing?

The term “greenwashing” might sound clean, but it actually refers to “dirty” marketing tactics. Many businesses were overeager to take advantage of the increased spending on sustainable products, and focused more on marketing their “sustainability” than on actually reducing their environmental impact with real changes to their operations and products. When a business spins, obfuscates or otherwise dishonestly markets itself as an eco-conscious corporation, they immediately open themselves up to a litany of legal issues and risk losing a large chunk of their customers.

Greenwashing as a marketing gimmick has been well documented for years. In the mid-1980s, oil tycoon Chevron launched “The People Do,” an expensive print and TV advertising campaign showcasing the company’s environmental dedication. However, as their advertising campaign ran, Chevron was actively breaching multiple environmental acts including the Clean Water Act and dumping oil into wildlife refuges.

Learning from the Allbirds Greenwashing Scandal

Many companies, large and small, are guilty of greenwashing – and it’s not always malicious or intentional. When companies advertise their products with claims of sustainability, many are not fully aware of the policies surrounding sustainability marketing or do not fully vet their messaging for misleading phrasing. Other companies may simply be marketing their products with the belief that their consumers are not well-informed and will not fact check their claims. As a result, consumer trust has waned, reputations have been irreparably damaged, and the entire sustainability market suffers from the increase in cynicism. 

Take, for instance, the footwear company “Allbirds.” Allbirds is a celebrity-endorsed, billion-dollar sneaker company dubbed “Silicon Valley’s favorite shoes.” The brand’s pro-environmental marketing messages liberally sprinkled in references to their low carbon footprint and spoke the language of a younger demographic of eco-conscious consumers. Thanks to our digital age, that increased public attention led to increased public scrutiny.

Allbirds’ greenwashing troubles began in their IPO filing, when they committed to ESG (environmental, social, governance) practices and to an SPO (sustainability principles and objectives) framework. These commitments require reports about the company’s climate impact as well as efforts to reduce impact on the environment by cutting emissions and requiring suppliers to address environmental issues. Allbirds was expected to be the first “sustainable public equity offering,” but was forced to walk back their SPO framework in an updated prospectus for later SEC filings. These amendments followed a consumer lawsuit “claiming violations of the New York Consumer Protection Statute, breaches of express warranties, fraud, and unjust enrichment based on Allbirds’ alleged ‘misleading environmental claims.’”

Contributors to the National Law Review summarize, “Companies like Allbirds and Beyond Meat, in touting their sustainability bona fides, also become targets for challenges by investors and regulators to the accuracy of such statements. Their experiences, therefore, provide important lessons for companies navigating increased demand for, and scrutiny of, climate-related disclosure.”

Walking the line between greenwashing and green marketing can be challenging for any marketer. Luckily, there are some key best practices any company can adopt to avoid instances of greenwashing, such as increasing transparency and offering supporting data to back up environmental claims. By following green marketing strategies and utilizing green PR professionals to ensure the brand’s messaging is clear and accurate, sustainable businesses can overcome the mistakes other companies are making, build trust with their consumers, and advance their missions in sustainability.

Download our free e-book to learn more about greenwashing and the power of environmental sustainability through green public relations. 

About Sustainable PR

Sustainable PR is a green public relations agency dedicated to advancing the growth and success of businesses with a mission in sustainability. As the green economy grows, Sustainable PR aims to give a boost to the sustainability sector by supporting the success of companies who are meaningfully tackling the oncoming climate crisis and helping to move the economy forward towards a post-polluting world. 

Founded in 2020, the company wins top media placements, develops key brand messaging and builds award-winning campaigns which help companies realize their sustainability commitments and take advantage of a growing sustainability market — all while contributing to a greener planet. For more information about the company’s mission and services, contact us for a free video consultation on your green messaging or call (518) 223-9962‬.