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To go green, brands must first go deep on brand alignment

Greenwashing can reveal a lack of understanding of a brand’s true values

by Kaylyn Sidle 

Consumers are quickly realizing that individual efforts to fight Earth’s escalating social and ecological crises simply aren’t enough. Buying paper straws and reusable coffee mugs can only do so much, as research shows that an average US household produces just 7.5 tons of CO2 equivalents per year, a minuscule fraction of the 50 billion tons of CO2 equivalents produced around the world. More than 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 have been sourced from just 100 companies.  

Consumers are now using their buying power to support the increasing number of brands who are taking up the climate fight and can drive change at scale. Forty percent of the general public say they are more likely to be actively involved in such issues, and are changing their buying patterns or encouraging others to do the same.  

Brands have, predictably, embraced this buying shift and have told shoppers that they’re working to make a better world. This often manifests in caused-based initiatives—brands supporting charities and causes aligned with this new messaging. But many struggle to fully align their business behind this vision because they see such causes as strictly a messaging tactic. The legacy practices of many industries weren’t designed with sustainability in mind, and consumers quickly uncover all the ways a supposedly green brand isn’t really green at all. 

Consumers call it greenwashing, but it really comes down to brand misalignment and lack of clarity around what a brand really sees as its purpose.

Any expression of a brand’s values must be supported across its entire organization. Consumers have the will and the tools to make sure their money is being spent in support of causes they care about. While earth-toned packaging and liberal use of terms such as “sustainable” and “ethical” can capture immediate attention, consumers are quick to catch on to inauthentic branding. They will discover a company’s true values and spend accordingly. Consumer-focused websites that rate brands based on how true they are to their ESG initiatives, such as Better Goods and Good on You, have made it easier than ever for consumer to ferret out brands who greenwash versus those who put their money where their label is.  

The $49-billion cosmetics industry provides good examples of brands who are earnestly trying to change a business for the better. Cosmetics have a history of unethical product sourcing that activist shoppers have long sought to change, such as the use of mica sourced from child labor, or the use of microplastics that are now found in one-third of lipsticks. More than 83 percent of respondents to an Open Text survey say they would be willing to pay more for a cosmetic product they could be sure was ethically sourced, and on average, would be willing to spend about 17.5 percent more on ethically sourced products. 

Burt’s Bees, the popular brand known for its natural and organic products and its tagline “True to Nature,” has developed a cult-following since its beginning in 1984. In the past, it faced public backlash for using synthetic (aka not natural) ingredients, but it’s since worked tirelessly to uphold its ethical values and prove itself as a worthy steward of ethical sourcing. It has invested in new supply chain partners and ingredients, overhauling production to create products and re-create old ones that are ethically sourced with natural ingredients. It has partnered with organizations like TerraCycle, which recycles used cosmetics packaging, and The Nature Conservancy, which works to protect environmental landscapes and promote the diversity of life on Earth. Additionally, Burt’s Bees has partnered with 12 sustainable suppliers to maintain its use of natural and organic ingredients with strict requirements under the USDA to accurately label its products. Although synthetic fragrances still remain an issue, Burt’s Bees has transparently addressed these concerns claiming that, “the majority of fragrances in Burt’s Bees products are natural, composed of proprietary blends of essential oils and natural extracts. Some of our heritage and other products contain partially synthetic fragrances.” 

The website Better Goods has given the company a “Good” overall rating based on its ingredients, sustainability, and animal rights policies, recognizing the opportunity to improve its initiatives while appreciating the ones it put in place to serve as an affordable, authentic, and ethical option for cosmetics shoppers. This rating is a reflection of the work Burt’s did across its entire organization—product development to supply chain to packaging—to be able to authentically broadcast a message of working for a better planet.

On the same cosmetics shelf as Burt’s Bees sits the Unilever-owned competitor Love, Beauty and Planet. With its delicate floral-print packaging and the word “planet” right in the title, it leans on a lot of the same beliefs as the well-rated Burt’s Bees: ethical ingredient sourcing, fair wages for workers, recycled packaging, and an anti-animal cruelty policy. Yet it has a “Bad” rating on Better Goods. Burt’s Bees has invested time and money into proving its bona fides through third-party accreditation and by tackling its legacy sourcing issues head-on. Better Goods’ investigation into Love, Beauty and Planet found no such certifications, little proof of action behind the green messaging, and singled out Unilever for unsustainable practices in a number of markets.  

The message to consumers is clear: for Love, Beauty and Planet, environmental and social causes are a means to an end and don’t represent anything authentic within the organization. Whereas Burt’s Bees has demonstrated the lengths to which it has gone to stand by its “True To Nature” position, Unilever’s product seems content to use ESG initiatives simply as a sales tactic to appeal to a conscientious shoppers. And as the Better Goods reporting shows, it’s not difficult to see past that. 

This issue stretches across industries. Fashion brands often claim to tackle similar ethical and environmental issues, such as fair labor practices, chemical usage, and animal welfare. As the apparel industry is expected to bring in approximately $335 billion in revenue this year, 52 percent of consumers say they want the fashion industry to become more sustainable, with calls for reduced packaging and fair pay for garment industry workers among their top demands. 

Madewell, a popular fashion brand known for its minimalistic style, uses it’s earthy, warm appearance to give the impression of sustainable, ethical fashion, promoting sustainable initiatives like denim recycling under its Do Well project. Buried in its website are links to several of its social responsibility codes, which include statements on chemical use and cotton sourcing: “Madewell is committed to a standard of excellence in every aspect of our business, including legal, ethical and responsible conduct and responsible sourcing in all of our operations.”  

But the use of the word “standard” is where Madewell falters. The consumer rating website Good on You has deemed its efforts “Not Good Enough” based on its commitments to people, the planet, and animals. Although the brand does use some eco-friendly materials, there’s no real evidence that it attempts to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, or that it has taken any action to reduce dangerous chemicals in its production.

“Standard” implies rigor and accreditation, and promises the use of a process to ensure its values are upheld. Some brands, such as activewear maker Girlfriend Collective, have invested in SA8000 Standard certifications from Social Accountability International, or built codes of conduct that reflects the International Labor Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, as a means to expose their practices to public scrutiny and vet their efforts. Madewell hasn’t received any fair-trade or sustainability certifications, and it received a low score of 11-20 percent in the Fashion Transparency Index, which ranks fashion brands on their transparency when reporting their social and environmental efforts. Additionally, only 40 percent of its factories are in full compliance with its own code of conduct based on third-party audits. 

Any brand that aligns with a social cause as a marketing tactic will quickly be labeled as inauthentic by empowered consumers who are working hard to make sure their purchases represent their personal values. A brand message must align with that organization’s core beliefs, and any attempt to greenwash those authentic beliefs creates an impression of dishonesty in the market—a charge no charitable donation or caused-based initiative can offset.

 

Kaylyn Sidle is a brand storyteller at Woden. Want to stay connected? Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss whatever your storytelling needs may be