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Planning for a sustainability campaign this Earth Day? Here's how to not fall into the trap of greenwashing

Planning for a sustainability campaign this Earth Day? Here's how to not fall into the trap of greenwashing

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Earth Day falls on April 22 which essentially means that brands are out in full force all month long with environmental campaigns and movements in honor of the celebrations. 

While many brands manage to do it right with meaningful campaigns and movements that have made significant impact, there are some brands that simply just miss the mark. For example, last year, an Earth Day promotion by ecommerce platform Lazada attracted all the wrong attention when the platform labeled disposable, plastic-packaged products as sustainable. 

The campaign, which was titled LazEarth, did little to counter the root of the problem and rather, perpetuated incorrect ideas about sustainability. 

So how can brands avoid falling into the trap of seeming opportunistic or simple flat out being cancelled? The answer it would seem lies in good storytelling. 

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Good storytelling

"Themed days like Earth Day or World Environment Day typically allows algorithms or media folk to pick out environmental news which might otherwise get lost at any other point in the year," said Qiyun Woo, a Climate Action Singapore Alliance executive member, sustainability consultant at Unravel Carbon and environmentalist. "Hence, brands can gain media mileage by aligning themselves with the cause in this month. However, jumping on the bandwagon comes with a fair amount of reputational risk depending on how a particular solution, product or campaign is marketed."

Woo added that intention, while important and good, does not absolve brands of the responsibility and accountability of fair and representative marketing. Essentially, she argues that good intentions by brands may lead to unintentional greenwashing. 

The solution Woo proposes is to invest in good storytelling. "Good storytelling is key to paint a representative picture of the work that has been done," she said. She added that regulations targeting green claims such as the Green Claims Directive (GCD) by the EU or even eco-labelling initiatives provide good guides for companies when it comes to environmental campaigns and green marketing.

"These rules provide a framework and guideline on what brands can claim as green. This can look like claims being substantiated with data, certifications, explanations, etc."

She added that we haven't seen much of this background work being done in Singapore, nor in Southeast Asia yet.

These rules are important to consumers as firstly improves the environmental literacy of consumers to understand what makes a product green, but it also builds trust as consumers know that these claims are well supported.

Woo continued by saying that greenwashing, intentional or not, breeds mistrust and that the inconsistency around what counts as green will eventually result in doubt being cast on brands and might even discourage well-meaning consumers from considering real eco-friendly options.

"My advice for brands is to engage meaningfully with local environmentalists, professionals, science communicators to find ways to communicate something complex in a way that's still entertaining, eye-catching but scientifically sound," said Woo. She added that brands should familiarise themselves with recognised guidelines and that even if they are not applicable in Southeast Asia per say, that they should consider it a good starting point. 

You need to be able to back up what you put out and also be consistent throughout your campaign - as much as possible.

Sincerity is key 

Agreeing with Woo, Robin Hicks, a sustainability journalist and deputy editor of Eco Business, a media publication dedicated to sustainable development, noted that brands simply cannot afford to be insincere or superficial in their marketing efforts when it comes to sustainability.

"There may be more to lose reputationally than there is to gain from using Earth Day as a marketing platform," Hicks noted. "Consumers can tell opportunistic brands that are bandwagon-jumping. A brand that communicates their greenness for one day of the year walks a fine line. It might be better to give Earth Day a miss and avoid the noise."

Hicks continued by saying that if marketing efforts are not backed up with evidence of real impact, a brand is likely engaging in greenwashing and that the first principle brands should adhere to is to "do it before you say it".

"There’s no reason why brands can’t communicate any point of their sustainability journey, as long as they’re honest and transparent about where they are at that point in time," he said. 

Noting that many brands seem to "get away with" greenwashing in "most Asian markets", Hicks noted that consequences are coming as more countries begin taking action against brands who engage in greenwashing. 

In Singapore, just recently, Minister of State for Trade and Industry Alvin Tan noted in Parliament that consumers who encounter instances of greenwashing based on claims made by suppliers can now approach the Consumer Association of Singapore (CASE) for help with the case

He noted that at the point of time, no specific complaints of greenwashing have been received by CASE but that the government will continue to monitor developments on greenwashing. These complaints can include a company making false claims about the environmental benefits of a product of services. 

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE reached out to CASE to confirm this and Mr Melvin Yong, the president of CASE, confirmed the statement. 

"As at 21 March 2023, CASE has not received any consumer complaints related to greenwashing," Yong said. 

Walk the talk

Aside from adhering to regulations and being authentic, brands also need to walk the talk and practice what they preach in order to lend credibility to their campaigns, according to Joanna Ash, the director of Bravery Communications

"I once had a meeting with an organisation that was big on weaving sustainability into its brand's narrative. I was shocked though to be guided to the company's visitor waiting area and to be sat next to boxes of plastic bottled mineral water that was just delivered by a delivery man and served at the same meeting," she said.

Ash's advice for brands is to set clear and measurable goals and to communicate them to stakeholders transparently, use credible sources and data in all campaigns, keep language simple, clear and concise and to collaborate with experts who can lend thought leadership to the campaign. 

"Progress should be tracked and evaluated to ensure that goals set are being met and communicated," she concluded.

Related articles:
Cathay Pacific dives deep into sustainability with creative woodcraft collection
Watsons dives deeper into sustainability with 'Go Green with MIRROR' campaign
Has the sustainability agenda trickled down to adland convos in Malaysia?

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