To fight greenwashing, brands need to become advocates for change

A child holds a banner during a protest, as the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) takes place, in London, Britain, November 6, 2021. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

April 22 - Last year Ethical Corporation magazine and Futerra, the PR agency I co-founded, both celebrated 20th birthdays. Like the magazine, Futerra was born out of a desire to make positive change in all parts of society: civil society, government, communities and business.

I attended many of Ethical Corporation’s first events and wrote in some of its first issues. Back then, renewables were still called “alternative energy”, campaigns about biodiversity were confused for those about biological washing powder, and when you talked about carbon dioxide, people would correct you and say, "don’t you mean carbon monoxide?”. In fact, at one point, we even considered renaming sustainability because nobody understood what it meant. I’m relieved those times are behind us.

Looking back on the last 20 years, one of the biggest changes I’ve witnessed is the messaging of sustainability going mainstream, but not the action. Twenty years ago, gathering 500 people to think and talk about sustainability would seem like quite an achievement. Now, we’re seeing 25,000 people attending global events like COP26. We know the number one concern amongst young people worldwide is climate change, and consumer demand for sustainable brands and products is now at an all-time high. Google saw a 4,550% increase in searches for sustainable lifestyles in April 2021. When it comes to communicating sustainability, we’re operating on a different playing field now.

Arguably, it is now corporations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that are scrambling to keep up with the public conversation about sustainability. The ramifications of that change haven’t even begun to be felt yet. Our audiences are now the creators of the conversation, and they see sustainability as integrated and intersectional, particularly those who are younger. In fact, talking about “audiences” or “consumers” when it comes to sustainability is naïve – because the leadership is coming from the public.

This is something that we wanted for a very, very long time (for those of us who are driven by sustainability). But many corporations are still struggling to understand that they lost control of the narrative a long time ago. That means the brand communications tactic of listing every green initiative just won’t cut it. Newsflash: nobody cares about your sustainability credentials; people only care about how you’re going to help them.

One of the biggest fights I've had over the last two decades is trying to get companies to understand that sustainability isn’t like other brand attributes. It is not like your price point or quality claims. In fact, the words “sustainability” and “claim” should never be in the same sentence. Because it's not the claims you make, it's about how you serve, how you help and how you provide answers. Traditional claim-making is the danger zone because that’s where greenwashing is born. If you’re in a “claims mindset” around sustainability, greenwashing is nearly inevitable.

COP26 President Alok Sharma talks with members of the Chinese delegation during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain November 13, 2021. More than 25,000 people attended the summit. REUTERS/Phil Noble

So, in the 2020s, what brands must ask themselves is: how can we advocate for change? How can we support change? How can we uplift change makers? By asking these questions, they will be actively fighting against the greenwash virus. Communications, at its best, should be about advocacy, honesty and helping the consumer to make better, more sustainable choices. The brands that do this well are being embraced. Whereas the brands that are still attempting to claim or take credit for what they're doing on sustainability tend to be disappointed, if not actually criticised, for greenwashing. Long may that continue.

So, what might the next 20 years look like for business sustainability?

Corporations need to answer one of the hardest questions of all: what role can we play in encouraging more sustainable consumption? It’s a question that none of us has answered in the last 20 years because it's not really a question about consumption, it's a question about capitalism. That’s why I expect, and desperately hope, to see radical innovation in business models.

I believe that brands are the architects of desire, and they should be the creators of the solutions. And the way to create those solutions is through inventiveness, imagination, experimentation, creativity, “hybridizing” and creating something new, rather than trying to re-engineer the old. I can’t wait to see what the next 20 years bring.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias. Sustainable Business Review, a part of Reuters Professional, is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

Solitaire Townsend is chief solutionist and co-founder of the global change-agency Futerra, with offices in London, New York, Stockholm and Mexico City. “Ethical Entrepreneur of the Year”, member of the United Nations Sustainable Lifestyles Taskforce and a London Leader for Sustainability. She is author of The Happy Hero – How To Change Your Life By Changing The World.