Terri Waters
Director of Public Relations

Are your sustainability claims sustainable?

As brands look to gain a competitive advantage, they may be tempted to jump on the sustainability bandwagon. It seems more and more organizations, from manufacturers to banks to sports teams and everything in-between, claim they are committed to sustainable practices or that their products are eco-friendly. 

While embracing sustainability is no doubt a good thing for the planet, it’s important to avoid overstating the activities your organization is undertaking or the resulting benefits. The last thing you want for your brand’s reputation is to be accused of “greenwashing.” 

Greenwashing is essentially painting a rosier picture than what is true regarding your sustainability initiatives. And customers aren’t having it. Especially Gen Z’ers. 

These post-millennials have high expectations for the brands they support. That includes wanting to see a commitment to and evidence of environmentally safe and eco-friendly practices. 

Adweek recently wrote that Gen Z consumers are “emboldened with the idea that they can and will make a difference, no matter the scale of the mountain in front of them, and they’ve been taught to believe that their voice and values deserve to be heard by the many, including the brands that serve them.”

TikTok calls out greenwashing

The hashtag “greenwashing” has almost 20 million views on TikTok, which caters heavily to a Gen Z audience. The highest trending #greenwashing posts include an influencer testing a supposedly compostable plastic spoon and finding it had not broken down at all after five months in a compost bin. “They claim these plastics are compostable and then this happens,” the young woman in the video says.

Another popular TikTok’er calls out two brands that sell reusable products wrapped in plastic and another one that dyes their product green to convey an eco-friendly message. 

A young man on TikTok criticizes McDonald’s for tearing down one of its restaurants, built in the 1980s, to make way for a brand new, “sustainable building” with rooftop solar panels. “This McDonald’s gets me so mad. This is a textbook example of corporate greenwashing… Completely gutting and destroying a building is not sustainable, unless you perfectly find a way to recycle all the building materials which none of these (media) articles mention they’re doing.”

He then tags the chain’s TikTok account: “@McDonald’s show me the data that this was the only way.”

Frustrated consumers

Concern for the environment isn’t limited to Gen Z, of course. In a recent Adweek-Morning Consult survey, consumers of various ages expressed frustration with greenwashing campaigns. Half said that brands and agencies should share legal responsibility for misleading claims related to the environment. 

Some European countries are proactively cracking down on greenwashing. For example, a French court found Adidas guilty of misleading consumers in ads about the recycled content of its athletic shoes. The copy didn’t state whether the materials used to make the shoe are recycled or if they can be recycled and if so, how. 

Adidas was also dinged for their “End plastic waste” logo which the court said is misleading. “Buying a product made partially with recycled plastic will not put an end to plastic waste,” the court said in its ruling.

It’s likely we’ll start to see these types of cases in U.S. courts at some point. 

Meanwhile, we recommend staying the course and double-checking any sustainability claims your organization is making. Unless you can back them up, it’s better to stay clear of phrases or statements that could raise eyebrows, or worse — get you tagged in a #greenwashing post. 

A proactive step a brand can take is to focus on one specific action the organization is taking to reduce its impact on climate change, and explain it in detail. If you’re working on further initiatives to become more sustainable – it’s fine to say that. Just don’t overstate it. Building and maintaining trust with your audience has never been more important.