Marketing Your Industrial Business as Sustainable — Honesty or Greenwashing?

Trying to develop a sustainability message? Don't get caught in the pitfall of greenwashing.
Sustainability or Greenwashing

How do you take an approach to marketing your industrial company that reflects an authentic commitment to sustainability vs. inauthentic greenwashing? As the debate about climate change heats up, the pressure is on to answer this question.

The climate crisis has gained more public exposure this year than ever before. The recent Climate Change Conference (COP26) led to meaningful, climate-conscious commitments from governments around the globe and widely circulated scientific findings have highlighted the need to reduce our carbon emissions.

As a result, people have become more aware of the impact of their consumerism, and actively seek ways to reduce their carbon footprint. This has led to sweeping changes across many industries and an influx of marketing campaigns that are designed to highlight “green” business practices.

However, some businesses have been accused of “greenwashing” and have felt the ire of consumers and regulatory panels. But what is greenwashing, and how can you ensure your business authentically engages in “green marketing”? 

What Is Greenwashing?

Many companies are keen to brand themselves as climate-conscious and eco-friendly — but far fewer actually make actionable commitments to help fight the climate crisis. The companies that put forward a green image but don’t follow it up with real changes to their business practices are “greenwashing.”

To put it simply, greenwashing is when a marketing team deceives its audience into believing that its products, services, or business practices are environmentally friendly when they are not.

Evidence of greenwashing is usually in the small print. Businesses will put forward a strong green brand, but the reality of their practices will not align with progressive, climate-conscious operations. Customers are becoming increasingly attuned to greenwashing, so you should be careful about putting forward any claims that do not correspond to direct actions your business has taken.

What Can Industrial Businesses Do?

Being accused of greenwashing can harm your brand and will undermine the legitimate efforts your business has made to be more climate-conscious. That means marketing departments should take real care to ensure that any green marketing is transparent and truthful.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to climate change, but industrial businesses looking to use green advertising must make real commitments to fighting climate change if they want to use green marketing. To do this, industrial businesses must assess their own business operations and target specific areas of improvement.

If your business isn’t sure of where to start, you can look into the following approaches:

Inside-out and Outside-in Analyses

The Harvard Business Review lays out a straightforward way for managers to assess their business practices from a climate-change standpoint. They suggest that firms take the time to assess all internal operations and their effect on emissions. To do this, businesses should assess everything from lead generation to sales aftercare with climate change in mind.

Once a business has fully considered its operations, it can look to see how external factors affect the business’ emissions — this is called “outside-in” analysis. In outside-in analysis, firms assess the wider systems and industries that affect carbon emissions. This will reveal potential opportunities for green growth and will help firms make climate-conscious decisions while remaining competitive.

Inside-out and outside-in analysis are like completing a climate audit for your business. Together, they show you where you can improve, and highlights areas of eco-opportunity for your business to pursue.

Empathize with Audiences

People are concerned about climate change. Policies like ending deforestation and increased usage of renewable energy are supported by the majority of people, and recognition of the climate emergency is more widely understood than previously.

This means it can be tempting to exploit people’s opinions on climate change, and profit from their anxieties about a climate crisis. However, failing to empathize with these audiences is a major advertising mistake. Not only is it deeply unethical, but you will be found out and penalized.

False advertising is costly and embarrassing. History is filled with advertising campaigns that have gone awry and ended in lawsuits. You’re in even deeper water if your claims are associated with climate science in any way. Advertising campaigns that point toward science must be reputable and supported by clinical studies — failure to do so will result in hefty fines.

When constructing a climate-oriented advertising campaign, try to imagine yourself from the audience’s point of view. By empathizing with your customer, you will gain their trust and are more likely to create marketing campaigns that connect with them. When creating your next campaign, ask yourself this simple question: If a customer learned more about your climate initiatives, would they be shocked or impressed? If you suspect you are deceiving the prospect, you should reassess your campaign and consider a new angle.

Green Marketing Guide

Green marketing is the polar opposite of greenwashing. Where greenwashing uses deception, green marketing transparently highlights a business’ sincere efforts to fight climate change.

Green marketing is also profitable. Of course, all companies should take the moral initiative and reduce their carbon emissions, but savvy marketing departments can convince decision-makers to undertake green policies which can be used to great effect in a profit-boosting marketing campaigns.

The best green marketing campaigns are transparent and honest. Successful green marketing campaigns, like Patagonia’s, act with authenticity and point towards real changes that the business has made — without the use of misleading statistics. This gives audiences a real insight into the firm’s commitment to climate change and will help build trust amongst consumers.

It’s also worth noting that no one expects perfection. No customer or partner expects every business to be carbon neutral (unless you advertise as such). That means you can be open and honest about your efforts, without having to posture as the greenest brand in the land.

Moving Forward without Greenwashing

We’re in a world of revolving crises. The global pandemic, economic downturns, and climate change make for a volatile industry in which effective marketing can act as a life jacket for your business. No one knows how long these crises will last, but we can learn from prior disasters and how effective marketing teams responded accordingly.

The climate crisis requires a particularly savvy approach. We know that glaciers are retreating, rising sea levels are destroying people’s homes, and the increase in global temperatures is causing extremely violent weather events. The last thing people need is deceptive, greenwashed marketing campaigns. Not only are greenwashing campaigns deceitful, but they also confuse willing and engaged audiences who want to do good in the world.

Instead of greenwashing, industrial businesses can make genuine investments into fighting climate change and can market these investments with transparency and humility. Audiences will appreciate the honest approach, and you will gather loyal customers who trust your messaging for years to come.


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