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As honest marketing gathers pace, is greenwashing washed?

Brands like Patagonia show one way to do sustainability messaging: unshowy, honest, committed. Raptor’s Toby Burt has a message for the greenwashers on the other side of the spectrum: it won’t work for much longer.

The idea of greenwashing isn’t new. Marketing strategies have always used bold and exaggerated claims, often bending the truth to drive sales. It’s no surprise that when the collective conscience of the public became more environmentally aware, marketing strategies adapted in turn.

In recent years, the public has become more informed, more involved, and more interested in environmental justice than ever. According to our most recent insight study, using social media data from 79 student participants, 89% of gen Z values brand sustainability and environmental awareness when considering purchasing decisions. With younger generations flying the green flag for brand environmental accountability, the question needs to be asked of how effective a tool greenwashing is in the era of mass environmental concern.

Greenwashing doesn't help anyone

At its core, greenwashing is an attempt to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is. This is done in multiple ways: by making false claims about products or processes, by burying environmentally unstable practices, or by using eco-friendly imagery without any actual substance to its use. Despite its sinister undertones, greenwashing isn’t necessarily due to malice or lack of care; it can often be attributed to over-enthusiasm. Regardless, the negative impacts of greenwashing far outweigh its intentions.

Luckily for Mother Nature, the rise in environmental awareness has had some serious repercussions for greenwashing. According to the environmental group Edie, only 19% of adults in the UK find ‘green’ product descriptions reassuring and 71% assume that eco-friendly claims aren’t checked by an independent party – an assumption which is usually true. Among gen Z, this doubt is even higher, with 88% of gen Z doubtful of companies' environmental claims of ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’, a perception which only brings about negative consequences for the companies involved. Brand trust, loyalty and image are stained, and by extension so is brand value.

Consumers want to feel good (honestly and genuinely good) about the brands they purchase from and endorse.

Taking this into account, while greenwashing may once have been an effective way of luring in customers, increased environmental attention and concern have left it on thin ice. While consumers favor green products and value environmentally sound practices, they’re also highly critical of brands who practice differently to the message that they preach. It appears that the best form of marketing, not just for the sake of business but for the protection of our globe, is honest marketing.

Honest marketing: How Patagonia walks the walk

As consumers, we’re all aware how hard it is to live a truly sustainable life. We drive cars despite knowing the benefits of public transport. We forget to recycle our tin cans or pizza boxes. It’s hard to achieve truly sustainable living in the modern world, but the key is that we strive for it. Brands could gain a lot from doing the same.

An example of honesty marketing comes from outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia. It never claims to be a sustainable brand; nor does it plaster claims of ‘eco’ or ‘green’ on its products. Instead, its website is full to the brim with educational pieces and articles about what the brand does. Since 1985, it has donated 1% of all profits to grassroots environmental groups. It’s a non-marketing company (it doesn’t advertise its products), but its brand image does the advertising for it. The brand’s commitment to sustainability alongside its honesty and transparency is what sells, as shown by the fact that it’s the leading market share holder in the outdoor apparel market.

Real climate action is expensive. It’s hard work and requires dedication to conservation above all else, even profit. So in a world where profit reigns supreme, we don’t need brands hopping on the bandwagon of sustainability, only to (in reality) only greenwash their products. It damages not just the environment, but brand image too.

Consumers are all too aware of today’s harsh realities. The best marketing a company can employ now is honest marketing, which displays company values and aspirations, while simultaneously holding up its metaphorical hands to say ‘we aren’t perfect’. None of us are.

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