Undermining greenwashing – the vital role PR professionals play   

By Claire Benson, Co-Director, SDG Changemakers.

In July Greenpeace wrote a piece calling out “dishonest green PR”, stating it “is on the rise”.

ClimateBert, an AI platform, can now expose companies who selectively ‘cherry-pick’ climate risk information incorporated into climate financial disclosures.

And you can see what they mean. Earlier this year, the International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network (ICPEN) found that on 500 websites, up to 40% of environmentally friendly claims could be misleading customers.

At COP26, the bite-sized, buzzword stuffed statements on climate change and action from PR representatives have led a group of academics to research if the PR sector will help or hinder the race to zero.

With greenwashing attracting media headlines, can those who uphold the PR Code of Ethics be instrumental in permanently undermining the practice?

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is currently a hot topic among those concerned with environmental and sustainability issues. The term first appeared back in the 1980s and is said to be coined by the environmentalist Jay Westerveld.

Greenwashing relates to the premise that some brands create a greener picture about their products or services than the reality through exaggeration, imagery and deflection of attention from the unsustainable elements. For example, sticking labels like ‘eco-friendly’, ‘organic’ or ‘sustainable’ to products without verification.

The impact on sustainability 

Despite comments from business leaders like the CEO of Ikea, greenwashing does have a detrimental effect on sustainability and consumer behaviour, ultimately hampering progress towards the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals.

When a company is called out for exaggerating its green performance or social impact, consumers understandably question their own motivations and commitment to sustainable practices. Shell, Brew Dog, H&M are just some cases in point.

Ultimately the data and performance statements which companies report on must be robust, authentic and trustworthy. Otherwise, there is no point in measuring progress, and without measurement, we have no way of tracking if we are going to meet science-based targets such as keeping global warming under 1.5 degrees.

The role of PR 

Transparency and accountability are critical. In May, PRCA found that six out of ten PR professionals were concerned that their clients wanted to talk about the climate crisis rather than address the problem. A worrying seventeen per cent of PR professionals surveyed believe that their clients’ knowledge of climate change was “incorrect or misinformed”.

From the beginning of next year, the Competition and Markets Authority will review misleading green claims and take further action against organisations if necessary. They have also published the Green Claims Code, which details six instructions for companies to follow when publicising environmental claims.

Businesses have until 2022 to make sure their eco-friendly claims are accurate and fair. But is it enough?

The true brand guardians

Climate misinformation presents a risk for companies looking to showcase their sustainability strategies and Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) credentials to investors and stakeholders.

For PR practitioners to be effective in their roles and to contribute in this decade of action, they need to take a strong stand and be brand guardians. Ensuring the vision, mission, values, and purpose are lived, not just given lip service.

Regardless of seniority, PR professionals have a duty to ensure the messaging they craft is targeted, scientific, verified and measurable. A net-zero announcement should not just be a splash moment; businesses need to prove their long-term sustainability intent focusing on people, the planet, and profit. Collaborating and partnering with independent experts who understand data, sustainable development, climate action, and human rights impacts is critical to add credibility.

Communication has many purposes, but if we look at climate action through the human rights lens, most practitioners would probably say they want to use their skills to be part of the solution. A solution that encourages positive behaviour change in consumers and sees businesses and governments engaging in sustainable development and growth.

Increased regulations and standards are on the way, but in the meantime, PR firms and individual practitioners have a decision to make. They can be authentic brand guardians, be part of the urgent action to solve global challenges, take a stand against greenwashing and eliminate it from the sector. Or perpetuate the problems, complicit in greenwashing, papering the cracks, too afraid to stand up for social, environmental, and economic sustainability and all the stakeholders involved.

The choice will impact the reputation of the PR industry for years to come.

Leave a Reply