Neville Stein warns against ‘green washing’

Steps to avoiding the 'green washing' trap

August 14, 2023
2 mins
Neville Stein
Horticultural Business Consultant

Modern marketing literature is peppered with words such as ‘ethical’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘eco-friendly’, which is no surprise as today’s consumer is generally looking to buy from brands that they believe are environmentally conscious, and are actively trying to reduce their own carbon footprint. Although coined in the 1980s by the environmentalist, Jay Westerveld, the term ‘Greenwashing’ has become prominent in recent years.

Andrew Nakamura, writing about this subject in his excellent article says that the term was used in reference to a hotel policy about reusing towels, in order to “save the environment.” In reality, it was a policy to use customers’ environmental sensibilities to reduce hotel laundry costs, and the hotel was doing very little otherwise to be environmentally friendly! Avoiding green washing is so important in the current world where the environment is a global concern, and where the mechanics of a business is so open and transparent to scrutiny and judgement. Well intentioned – and probably influential – consumers must not be misled into believing that they are making eco-friendly choices when they buy your products. This could backfire in terms of reputation, sales and profit if the reality of your claims is exposed, and even lead to legal action depending on what you erroneously claimed.  It’s also a matter of integrity – do you want to be known as a business that has and promotes honesty, integrity and truth?

So, if you are serious about promoting your green credentials, how do you avoid the ‘green washing’ trap?

  • Firstly, be careful in emphasising one small eco attribute of a product, when other aspects might be heavy on carbon. For example, you might promote a bio degradable pot – admirable in itself but what if these pots are flown in from India and produced in a factory that heavily consumes natural resources?
  • Secondly, avoid using fluffy words that have no clear meaning. Consumers today are wise to meaningless jargon and any statements that you make regarding your green credentials must be backed up with solid facts and data. Provide proof and illustrate your claims with plenty of detail. This of course means that you must avoid treating fabricated claims as facts! If a third party is providing you with claims regarding some of their products you are using, adopt a critical thinking approach to those claims and check them via a variety of sources to make sure you are comfortable with those claims.
  • Thirdly, don’t kid yourself that you can continue to use unsustainable practices by offsetting carbon consumption by planting trees!  Surely, it’s better in the first instance to remove unsustainable inputs rather than assuage one’s guilt by planting more trees?
  • Finally, consumers trust companies that are transparent, so there is nothing wrong with admitting to mistakes and showing how you will put them right. This shows consumers what steps you are taking to reduce your carbon footprint – but again be careful that you are not just ‘moving the desk chairs on the titanic’ with your initiatives. You might be proud of ‘your cycle to work scheme’ but you still replace your company cars every two years with new ones!

We have a great opportunity in this industry to lead the way on sustainable initiatives – after all, plants are going to be one of the solutions in reducing carbon but let’s make sure we produce those plants in as sustainable a manner as possible!