Greenwashing is no longer an all-embracing term. The word has not grown with the evolvement of this area. It is no longer simply about green it is much broader. Today, the term needs to incorporate social, environmental and economic responsibility in one because in many ways they are linked. In fact, it needs to reflect the importance of the social licence to operate. 

The findings from an independent, nationally representative panel of 1002 Australians, commissioned by parcel delivery service CouriersPlease (CP), reveals that 85% of consumers want retailers and brands to be more transparent about the origins and sustainability of their products and whether they are engaging in ethical practices.

If the world is to embrace the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), businesses are to fully adopt corporate social responsibility (CSR) and ethical investment is to take the lead, we need a far broader term than ‘greenwashing’ to call out misinformation. Communicators within these fields need unambiguous guidelines that clearly outline what is acceptable and true. The public needs to have confidence in what is being communicated, especially when a lifestyle or investment decision is involved. 

The origins of the term ‘greenwashing’ can be argued. The meaning of the term is quite clear. It is simply an unsubstantiated claim that aims to make a product or entity appear environmentally friendly. According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) “Businesses are not allowed to make statements that are incorrect or likely to create a false impression”. Specifically referring to environmental claims the ACCC adds, “businesses making these claims must be able to substantiate them”.

With ‘greenwashing’ being limited to the matters relating to the environment, today we need a more encompassing term. A word that incorporates the SDGs, fits in with the principles of CSR and elevates confidence in ethical investing. 

Today we need to call out organisations that are not just greenwashing but social washing or sustainability-washing (it could be called SusDevWashing but that does not easily roll off the tongue). The point is that companies need to be aware that not only are NGOs becoming more sophisticated in detecting all forms of ‘washing’, but so is the consumer. More stakeholders such as investors are looking for ethical investments. Whilst healthy dividends is the primary outcome sort, a lot of people want to put their money where it does the least harm. Today they want to know more about how the organisation will be sustainable in the future. How it will impact the planet, society and humanity.

This is where good communication supported by a clear communication strategy is important.

The damage for taking part in ‘washing’ activity, whether on purpose or inadvertently, is far greater than simply a fine. The loss of reputation will have significant ramifications throughout the business from investment, customers, shareholders confidence through to the quality of person that is attracted to the organisation.  

Business entities can be classified into three basic categories:

  1. Do nothing, say nothing
  2. Do something, say nothing
  3. Do something, say something

No such organisation exists that does everything in this space. If they say they do then I strongly suspect that they are involved in some form of ‘washing’. 

Do nothing, say nothing organisation

This organisation is already on a trajectory to extinction. Simply put if you are doing nothing you are already going backwards in today’s business world. 

Do something, say nothing organisation

These are the organisations that want to fly under the radar. One day when they have all their ducks in a row, they will share their achievements. Until that time keeping a low profile is the strategy. 

It is important for these organisations to come to the realisation that their ducks will never be in a row. There will always be new standards and goals to achieve.

Many of these types of organisations believe that if they achieve all the appropriate certification that will speak for itself. Unless it is known and more importantly understood why these certificates or standards matter, no one will be any the wiser about their achievements. Saying nothing does a disservice. This organisation may have significant advantages, yet no one knows about it. 

Often these organisations are convinced that the right people will know. Or that they will be told at the right time. 

Communication is like dating, it requires effort and an array of approaches if the right partner, customer or stakeholder is to be successfully wooed. 

In addition, saying nothing can be misconstrued as hiding something. This in turn invites suspicion which impacts negatively on future communication efforts. 

Do something, say something organisation

Many organisations fall into this category with varying degrees of success. Those that fail in this area may regress into the ‘do something, say nothing’ category. The once bitten twice shy approach. 

The important take-home message for this group is not just about saying something but how it is said and that everyone in the organisation is on the same page. ‘Washing’ in its various forms can occur because communication within the organisation is lacking.  

Here are some simple guidelines

  1. Align with goals that make sense to your business. It makes it more credible.
  2. Prepare don’t react!
  3. Be clear – avoid vague terminology or industry speak
  4. Avoid vague, feel-good platitudes and motherhood statements.
  5. If it cannot be substantiated, then don’t say it.
  6. Make sure it’s not misleading. 
  7. Stick to objective and transparent information and data.
  8. Accept limitations and be open about them – remember it is impossible to do it all and more often than not the information provided is part of the narrative, not the whole story. Context is particularly important.
  9. Most importantly be consistent with what is happening within the organisation and how the sector is perceived in the public domain. 

These simple guidelines may appear obvious. Then why do so many communications go wrong and cause controversy?

The final piece of advice is to consider an external entity to review the communication. It is best to utilise those that are not involved and can quickly demonstrate potential pitfalls.

The various communication platforms can become a hostile environment when inconsistent messages are being shared. Once the label of ‘washer’ has been applied, there is a lot more scrutiny and it is difficult to shake off. 

Reach out if I can assist you with anything.

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First appeared in Medium on 3 September 2020