Five ways you can avoid greenwashing as a small business

With the current outlook on climate change, it is more important than ever for companies to work towards more sustainable measures. However, marketing this can be tricky.  

The worry of greenwashing is real – with some companies such as Coca-Cola and IKEA facing lawsuits due to their own sustainability messaging. As a small business, you don’t want to be facing these sorts of financial and reputational conflicts.  

In this article, we will explore how your small business can avoid greenwashing claims while still contributing to a better society and environment.  

What is greenwashing?

Before we share advice to help you avoid the risk of being accused of greenwashing, we first need to clarify exactly what it is.

Greenwashing is when companies make false or misleading claims about the environmental benefits of their products or business practices. It is used by companies to ‘game the system’ and profit from eco-conscious customers, while continuing harmful and polluting business practices.

The term was first invented in 1986 in an essay by then-student and environmentalist Jay Westerveld. On a trip to Fiji, Jay noticed that his hotel asked guests to reuse towels to be kind to the planet (while also saving the hotel money…). But at the same time, the hotel was built near sensitive island ecosystems and was expanding.

Five ways you can avoid greenwashing

Greenwashing can be as serious as an overt (and maybe even illegal) lie or false or exaggerated claim. But it can also be as subtly manipulative as using natural, eco-friendly themed imagery and language on packaging and promotional materials for products that harm the environment.

Being accused of greenwashing can be incredibly harmful for a business’ brand and reputation. So how can you avoid falling into the trap? Here are five suggestions.

1) Keep communication clear 

One way to ensure your company is accurately advertising its efforts towards environmentally-friendly practices is through clear and consistent communications. It has been found that 77% of UK customers don’t understand what companies are claiming when they talk about sustainability.  

This can lead to confusion – such as making customers believe you are fully sustainable when really you might have only changed processes recently to reduce your carbon footprint in one area of the business.  

Making sure you are sending clear messaging which isn’t contradictory is a certain way to ensure your business is advertising itself fairly.  

2) Avoid overpromising 

Another problem that small businesses could face is overpromising to their customers. While you might be tempted to claim that your productions will reduce carbon emissions by a certain percentage, for example, if this doesn’t happen then it can cause problems and even claims against your company.  

Instead, make sure you are advertising your past efforts which have suitable data to back them up. Talking about how you have helped the environment – rather than how you hope to – can mean that if plans fall through, your company isn’t liable.  

3) Partner with other companies

One way to ensure you are meeting some of your sustainability values is by partnering with other companies doing the same. If you are a local shop you might partner with reliable card suppliers, artists, or delivery services to ensure your business is making changes towards being more sustainable wherever possible.  

A small business focusing on clothing might try to attain manufacturers close to their warehouse and target demographic to reduce the travel mileage, while choosing sustainable logistic solutions.  

Making sure who you are partnered with shares the same morals and values as you is important. Not only does your messaging apply to your own company, but customers and the media will look to who you actively work with to represent these matters too.  

You cannot present as a sustainable company if your services have a detrimental impact on the environment or utilise practices which are harmful or unethical, for example.  

4) Provide statistics for your claims

Supporting the environment is not only about making claims that your company is making efforts towards being sustainable, but it is about being able to actionably quantify this. Your business should be able to provide data proving the claims it makes.  

Being unable to do so not only damage the trust your clients and customers have in your business, but it can also lead to legal action. In fact, 26% of all greenwashing lawsuits come from companies not being able to back their claims up with data.  

If your company claims to be reducing plastic use through changes to packaging, you need to be able to specify how much you are reducing the plastic usage, if the replacement is environmentally friendly, and if this happening across all products, for example.  

Being able to demonstrate your claims not only verifies your environmental efforts but it also validates your company as one which does as it says.  

5) Hire environmental staff 

If in doubt, your business could hire a professional to assist in your social responsibility management. Hiring a Corporate Sustainability Officer could mean that your business has a representative considering the environmental implications of your business procedures.  

If in any doubt about your company’s sustainable marketing, then you should check in with a legal team. They can ensure your business isn’t making claims that are false or unsustainable. If your company is set on making a difference to the environment, then making sure you are doing so legally is important.  

As a small business, it is important that your reputation remains intact. Being close to a community, and even helping environmental efforts, could be a big thing for your business – but marketing your efforts towards your impact on climate change must be done carefully.  

It is important to avoid greenwashing

Whether you are wanting to reduce your likelihood of legal action or damages reputation, avoiding greenwashing is key – from working alongside companies with similar environmental values to sound-checking your messaging.