Let’s loudly call out the downright dishonest companies who cynically use greenwashing but equally let’s support those businesses who are trying to reach ‘great’ but haven’t got there yet, says multi award winning Chief Creative Officer, Emma de la Fosse.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced that it was investigating the sustainability claims of fashion brands George at Asda, BooHoo and ASOS. The CMA can take brands to court and ask them to change their practices and the Government are looking to make their recommendations legally binding.

The report hasn’t yet been released but is predicated to cause a splash and will have major ramifications for corporate reputations. Can you imagine the temperature in the PR dept of those companies?

Fast fashion brands are not the only ones to have been called out. Last June, an investigation by Reuters called out Unilever for lobbying against the ban of plastic shampoo and lotion sachets which have caused widespread devastation in marine eco-systems in Southeast Asia, despite publicly pledging to phase out environmentally damaging packaging. Also last year, HSBC had an ad campaign touting its tree planting programme pulled by the UK advertising watch dog because the bank failed to acknowledge that it is still one of the world’s biggest backers of fossil fuel projects.

In short, they’ve been accused of Greenwashing. This now ubiquitous term was first coined in 1986 by US environmentalist Jay Westerveld in response to hotels’ claims that re-using towels was better for the environment. ‘Greenwashing’ is now so commonplace it has been included in the Oxford English Dictionary.

My heart leapt when I read that the Government are considering making the Competitions and Markets Authority recommendations legally binding. For too long, some brands, and their agencies, have viewed sustainability more as an opportunity for award wins and a positive PR splash than for the real, lasting environmental change our planet desperately needs. However, in our drive to root out ‘fake change’ how can we ensure that accusations of greenwashing are not applied too broadly and enthusiastically, accidentally disincentivising brands with good intentions who miss the mark? Those companies who are trying to do the right thing but who may, sometimes for reasons beyond their control, fall short?

Recently, the term ‘Greenhush’ has started to emerge in the press. ‘Greenhush’ is the antonym to Greenwash, defined by the FT as ‘companies increasingly choosing not to publish details of their climate targets to avoid scrutiny and allegations of greenwashing’. A survey from Climate Consultancy South Pole found that of the 1,200 companies they polled, over a quarter said they would not reveal their science backed net zero emissions targets. This is a real problem. If businesses don’t say what they are doing, they are failing to share their learnings with other businesses, slowing progress for all when we have no time to waste.

There are clear signs that industry is nervous about transitioning to more environmentally sustainable, less destructive practices. In their Sustainable Marketing 2030 Report, the WFA and Kantar found that while 94% of senior marketers, globally, believe that industry must act more bravely on the issue of sustainability only 39% of respondents are starting to take their first steps. This is because changing your supply chains, business models, packaging – you name it – is risky, it costs money and takes time. As a result, environmental sustainability is the hardest of the ESG goals and doesn’t always have the immediate PR ROI enjoyed by, say, putting more diverse people in your advertising.

Change is an iterative process. Failure is inevitable and mistakes will be made. But if those mistakes risk the dreaded #backlash in mainstream and social media, will any companies be brave enough to be open about their environmental initiatives? We are all familiar with the term ‘perfect is the enemy of progress’. Many a CEO will attest, the fastest way to transition a business is to simply start transitioning. Too much noodling in the lab gets you nowhere fast. Our transition to NetZero should be viewed in the same way; in Beta. I’d much rather see industry trying and failing and trying again rather than an epidemic of Greenhush and companies not trying at all.

H&M was sued twice in 2021, once for its ‘environmental scorecards’, an initiative that let fashion fans know how sustainable an item was, and once again after the launch of the ‘Climate Conscious Collection’. Activists opined that fast fashion could never be sustainable, regardless of whether the clothing was made of organic or recycled fibres. They are right, fast fashion is inherently bad for the planet. But what would we rather H&M do? Personally, I’d ban fast fashion tomorrow but so long as we, as customers, demand cheap, throw away clothing from places like H&M, BooHoo and Primark, the market will supply it. I’d much prefer to see H&M try to be more sustainable by using organic and recycled fibres than ‘go dark’ and fail to share their successes and failures with the rest of the fashion industry.

We need to draw a distinction between cynical PR ploys via deliberately misleading messaging and the genuine shortfalls or mistakes that are part and parcel of business transition. In return, business should have the reassurance that by being honest and transparent, they have our support when things don’t go right.

To support more honest and transparent behaviours, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the CMA could thoroughly overhaul the rules and regulations on messaging. Brands must be encouraged to share their efforts to reduce environmental impact but we need context – whereabouts in their journey a brand is. Put simply, brands should tell us about what they’ve done but, equally, be more transparent and honest about what they’ve yet to do. For example, Adidas can trumpet that it’s making some of its sneakers from recovered ocean plastic. But it also needs to tell me what % of a typical Adidas sneaker is recyclable and what they plan to do to become a circular economy. Tesco can tell me about its tasty Plant Chef Range but it also needs to tell me what it is doing to sever ties with some of its chicken and pork suppliers, subsidiaries of a giant Brazilian operation who are burning the Amazon rain forest down.

As marketers and advertisers we also need to look at ourselves. We provide many opportunities and incentives for brands to engage in short term, one-off initiatives that have more to do with short term fame than real, lasting change. Many of the ideas for sustainability that pick up at awards shows are not sustainable. You’ll never see them again after they’ve won a gong. My favourite idea of the decade and winner of Cannes Effectiveness Grand Prix was Michelob’s Charter for Change. It took 5 years of hard graft to come to fruition and, as a result, the story was all the more compelling for other CMOs. It’s examples like ABInBev and Michelob’s that inspire brands to commit to the proper long term funding and rolling out of great creative solutions that will put us on track for NetZero.

So let’s loudly call out the downright dishonest companies who cynically use greenwashing but equally let’s support those businesses who are trying to reach ‘great’ but haven’t got there yet. Because simply replacing Greenwash with Greenhush benefits nobody.