Regulators are calling out greenwashing brands

From fast fashion brands, Boohoo and Asos, to producers of bottled water and supermarkets like Asda, the legitimacy of green credentials and sustainability claims are being called out by regulators.

Social media users started publicly roasting and mocking Kourtney Kardashian Baker the minute she was appointed sustainability ambassador of BooHoo, a fashion brand accused of greenwashing.

“You know what would be super cool would be if NOBODY bought Kourtney Kardashian's sustainable 48 piece collection of plastic garms for Boohoo. Industry experts suspect that Boohoo is desperately trying to rally its share price. Don't do Boohoo's dirty work,” a British journalist Lucy Siegle tweeted.

Greenwashing might be nothing new, but will brands finally be made accountable for their misleading claims and environmental impact?

Brands under the spotlight

In recent months, many big brands have been virtue signaling their support for big issues impacting their customers. However, despite having good intentions, some have been accused of exaggerating their claims of being environmentally friendly and appear to be more concerned with using the term for marketing purposes rather than being a part of the solution. Welcome to the rise of greenwashing, where consumers increasingly call out brands for false claims about their sustainability practices.

As the impacts of climate change dominate the news cycle, we are increasingly seeing ESG scores being promoted as a way for businesses to measure their environmental, social, and governance risks. The overall score is determined by many factors such as energy efficiency, carbon emissions, and board diversity. Although the idea of making big business accountable for its environmental, social, and governance impacts on the world, many are getting caught trying to game the system.

In the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) are actively investigating three big brands accused of using misleading claims or vague language that suggest their businesses are much greener and more sustainable than they are. Top of the hitlist is the Asos, Boohoo, and Asda. The brands are suspected of attempting to appeal to green-focused shoppers by exaggerating their green credentials and deceiving customers that their clothing is eco-friendly.

An increasing number of consumers want to do the right thing by making responsible consumer choices. But rather than provide more sustainable options or help their customers play a part in the circular economy, many brands consider these evolving demands as a marketing opportunity rather than a way to make meaningful change and impact. But how did we get here?

Deceptive PR campaigns

Oil companies are arguably the pioneers of greenwashing. For example, Chevron infamously commissioned its expensive environmental People Do drive in the eighties. Unfortunately, despite the big promises, the company violated the Clean Air and Clean Water Act and was also caught spilling oil into wildlife refuges.

Distrust around claims made by big businesses can also be traced back to last year when it was reported that British Petroleum hired public relations professionals Ogilvy & Mather to change the narrative on climate change. Rather than everyone blaming the oil giant, they found a way of pointing the finger of blame at individuals instead.

The deceptive PR campaign would result in BP famously unveiling its "carbon footprint calculator" back in 2004. Furthermore, it would remove BP from the climate narrative and replace it with the concept that commuting to the office, our food consumption, and traveling is primarily responsible for heating the globe.

Fast forward to 2022, and many of the world's largest brands have grabbed the baton and proudly declared their sustainability commitments. But a recent report found that 12 companies, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and McDonald's, are responsible for 70% of the branded packaging pollution in the UK.

More recently, Mercedes was also forced to distance itself from environmental ads after being called out for greenwashing by Wherefrom. The review platform empowers consumers to score products based on their environmental impact and creates posters to provide a more realistic representation of Mercedes’ actual contribution to climate change.

The tech industry loves a good buzzword. For example, our daily newsfeeds with stories of how consumers are driving sustainable, ethical tech solutions. However, although big tech responds with solutions such as green AI, the jury is still out on whether even big tech is aggravating or solving the climate change problem.

Sustainability needs to be a business goal, not a marketing tool

Brands know that many consumers want to do the right thing and will spend more on a product if it's sustainable. As a result, businesses of all sizes can be seen playing buzzword bingo in every corner of the world when promoting their green credentials. But there is hope with marketing teams increasingly being called out for wrongly claiming their products or services are carbon neutral, eco-friendly, and sustainable.

Greenwashing has been around for 40 years. Although its evolved and grown in sophistication, many consumers now see through the deception. For example, the bottled water industry is possibly the biggest offender in promoting its greenness through the imagery of mountain springs, clear lakes, and wildlife. However, the reality is that 78% of bottled waters recently analyzed in France contained microplastics.

Damaging consumer trust by making misleading claims is not a risk any brand should take lightly. News that the EU will be clamping down on greenwashing is beginning to set off a few alarm bells on Wall Street, and it could go a long way to ensure that every brand is made accountable by practicing what they preach. On a positive note, we can collectively begin to make a difference when sustainability becomes a business goal rather than a marketing tool.

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