Transparency Makes a Brand Sustainable
Greenwashing and the Pollution of a Brand
By Kenly Craighill
Danny Devito, as “Mr. Wormwood,” proclaims this mantra loudly (and proudly) in the 1996 film Matilda. Dressed in an outdated plaid blazer, equipped with an outrageously tacky pocket square, Wormwood cradles a rigged drill to tamper with a used car’s odometer: “You run it backwards, the number goes down. See?”
He smiles crookedly as the car’s mileage ticks lower and lower, revealing stained yellow teeth and showing off a badly bleached comb-over.
“Daddy, you’re a crook!” Matilda insists. And she’s right.
Never has a character so perfectly personified the stereotypical used car salesman. It’s a villainous embodiment of every consumer’s aversions: corruption, scam, and deceit. On screen, caricature makes it easy to spot a swindler. Heavy-handed hustle and blatant rip-offs make it obvious — they can’t be trusted. Spotting a villainous brand story, however, isn’t so simple.
When a person decides where to spend their money, they’re doing much more than assessing features, benefits, or price. They’re seeking a trustworthy brand. In fact, 73 percent of consumers consider transparency more important than price, and 40 percent say they would switch from their preferred brand to one who’s more transparent. When a consumer feels a brand does not reflect their own ethos, they ignore it. Worse: when they feel a brand is only paying lip service to those values, they feel disrespected and actively reject it. When a company makes claims inconsistent with their core narrative just to make a sale, appeal to consumer trends, or save their reputation, they choose perceived short-term gain over the foundational trust that builds equity in the long-term.
For contemporary consumers, there’s no easier way to signal that alignment than a commitment to “going green.”
Research shows consumers increasingly value companies and products that emphasize environmental sustainability— an impressive 90 percent of Americans consider environmental consequences when making a purchase. Companies have attempted to glom on to this shift in customer’s priorities, and many have begun claiming sustainability in an attempt to earn customer trust — often without the actions necessary to back up these claims.
The cardinal sin for a brand story is saying one thing but doing another, especially in the eco-friendly market, where buyers express heightened concern for honesty and transparency. There’s a word for this incongruity, specifically for brands making broad, unsubstantiated claims of environmental consciousness: greenwashing. Greenwashing has become a Band-Aid for companies who want to “preserve and expand their markets or power by posing as friends of the environment” without taking meaningful action.
Take Fiji water, for example. Fiji responded to the eco-conscious consumer’s rebellion against plastic water bottles by launching fijigreen.com, which outlined all the ways buying Fiji water had a positive environmental impact. The company stamped its bottles with a graphic of a green water droplet, a symbol eerily similar to environmental seals of approval used by independent third parties. In theory, this marketing campaign was an effective way to align themselves with new consumer trends. In practice, Fiji’s $5 million green campaign flopped.
Before their green campaign, loyal Fiji customers were paying almost three times as much for Fiji water over cheaper alternatives. The core of Fiji’s brand story was laced with luxury — their water bottles appeared in the jeweled hands of high-profile Hollywood celebrities and sat atop the oak desks of leading political figures. Fiji’s marketing stuck to this story with intention and enthusiasm, positioning themselves in the center of high-brow pop culture. The Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan was said to only use Fiji water in its dog bowls, and celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa raved that “every piece of lobster sashimi should be dipped into Fiji water seven to ten times.”
Customers weren’t buying Fiji water with the expectation of being environmentally friendly, they were buying it as a means of showing the world indulgence, luxe, and glamour. Fiji’s attempts to stray from this persona weren’t necessary, but they still may have worked — if they hadn’t been bullshit.
The production and transport of just one Fiji water bottle is estimated to release 81g of fossil fuels and use 720g of water— contrary to the company’s claims of being “carbon negative.” The bottles are packaged in a diesel-fueled factory, and are made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) which has low recycling rates, and takes thousands of years to decompose.
As a result, Fiji water found themselves in the throes of a class action lawsuit (in California, where else?) for making false and misleading claims about their carbon negative water bottles. Though the lawsuit was eventually dismissed, Fiji had done irreparable damage to their brand.
While Fiji futilely attempted to jump on the “go green” bandwagon in a misguided attempt to coopt cultural trends, other companies do so as a defensive measure. Pivoting a strategy in response to consumer backlash is a part of any large business, but there’s a right way and a wrong way for brands to eat crow. Empty attempts to placate audiences only further emphasizes disrespect for consumers.
Oil and gas companies show this sharp misalignment between words and actions, and are often the biggest culprits of greenwashing. As consumer perceptions of the oil and gas industry shift, companies have had to rectify the disconnect between the core of their operations and the trend toward environmental consciousness. A 2017 Ernst & Young study indicated that 76 percent of consumers label oil and gas companies as polluters, 63 percent don’t trust them to do the right thing, and 49 percent of teen participants believe the industry isn’t interested in what’s best for their generation.
These data didn’t appear suddenly, either. While some level of consumer pushback related to the costs of fossil fuels are unavoidable, many companies have evaded a meaningful dialogue and tried to greenwash their way forward. Shell, for example,has updated their advertising without any other change in tack — putting a Band-Aid over, rather than addressing and healing, a serious wound.
Shell began running “green” ads in 2011, boasting clear skies, green coastlines, children flying kites, and the copy “Let’s help to keep the skies blue. Let’s go.” Rather than successfully highlighting their eco-consciousness to consumers, the ad campaign was mocked mercelessly. Though the campaign recognized the demand for sustainable energy and the growing importance of environmental consciousness, Shell failed to actually live by this new, eco-friendly persona. Consumers can sniff out this lack of authenticity a mile away, making Shell appear untrustworthy and deceitful — an even more negative impact than the previous perception.
Exxon takes an alternative approach to Shell’s defensive greenwashing. Instead of deflecting attention to their negative environmental impact, or disguising themselves as an environmental ally, Exxon has historically disregarded climate change—they don’t care, and they don’t pretend to care. It simply doesn’t benefit their mission to be the “premier petroleum and chemical manufacturing company.”
Whether consumers agree with this attitude or not, it’s difficult not to respect its authenticity. Exxon wants to sell oil and gas—not “environmentally friendly” oil and gas. In a market where price is the primary driver of purchasing decisions, Exxon has bet that consumers will look past its positions to buy its gas. And as one of the most valuable companies in the world, it’s tough to argue they don’t understand that opportunism, greenwashing, and denying the reality of a product or industry doesn’t work.
Any time a brand views their story exclusively as a marketing tool, they avoid establishing a mission their company can live and breathe by. If a brands story’s sole function is nothing more than drawing in customers, a brand can and will shift that story to favor whatever makes a quick sale— just like Mr. Wormwood. Alternatively, if brand sees their story as an articulation of their strategy and the guiding principle for all they do, it challenges marketing to be both compelling and authentic — and customers are all the better for it.
The companies who have most effectively leveraged environmental commitment have addressed the growing market desire for sustainability from the inside out. They understand and internalize the idea that brand messaging must align with company actions to establish durable, lasting success. Instead of merely performing the role of an environmentally compassionate brand, companies like Everlane have worked to understand their eco-friendly consumers. This popular women’s clothing company has a cult following, gaining trust through an honest, consistent, and well-implemented brand story.
The fashion industry is known for being ethically murky, especially around environmental impact. Everlane knew it would not be effective to sprinkle jargon about earth-consciousness in their marketing if skeptical customers could unearth an alternate reality. Instead, Everlane committed to a brand promise of “radical transparency” by “partner[ing] with the best, ethical factories around the world, source only the finest materials, and share those stories.”
Every factory that supplies Everlane clothing stridently abides by strict environmental regulations, and each piece of clothing is shipped in recyclable paper— a relief from the 161 tons of plastic product packaging waste per year. They’ve also launched Everlane ReNew — a commitment to eliminating all new plastic in their entire supply chain by 2021. Everlane has even promised to extend their internal education program to eliminate all single use plastics from their stores and offices.
But, this promise alone isn’t what makes Everlane so successful. It’s the authenticity of an organization-wide commitment that resonates with customers. The Everlane website lists every factory they use for manufacturing, how they found it, how the factory sources material, who the owner of the factory is, what year it was established, its number of employees, and thorough photographs of each space. There’s no obfuscation and no greenwashing — only alignment with the story they’re telling each customer.
Trust is rooted in shared purpose, and it’s hard to find one more widely emotionally resonant than environmental stewardship. But, the rapidly growing mass of buyers seeking sustainable brands aren’t just looking for a green package, slick tagline, or a photo of clean water. They’re seeking a brand that consistently earns trust through a lifetime of direct action — and they’re on high alert for actions that may break this trust forever. Whether a brand connects with customers over environmental commitment, or a different widely shared community value, they can’t just talk the talk —they need to walk the walk. As for companies who reduce their story to surface-level marketing tactics, they can expect consumer loyalty just as shallow.
Kenly is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss how we can help tell your story.