How to Get Talking About Sustainability and Avoid Greenwashing


Phil ForbesContent Writer

Friday, December 11, 2020

Developing products around what customers want is a smart business plan. Creating a business around those products is even better. But what if what customers want actually has nothing to do with price, world-class quality or some other value proposition?

Article 7 Minutes
How to Get Talking About Sustainability and Avoid Greenwashing

Today, there's one 'thing' that's becoming more and more important to all consumers, and the attitude of consumers toward it isn't going to change anytime soon.

The environment.

From brands as big as Coca Cola and Nike to those as small as the corner ma & pa store, they're all starting to pay more attention to the environment, sustainability and being eco-friendly.

And that's because consumers want them to.

But an eco-brand isn't built by slapping a recycled sticker onto your product packaging and adding some green leaves to your homepage.

In this article, you'll see a handful of ways to get key stakeholders in your business talking about sustainability and making change, as well as what to avoid.


Depending on your business, appealing to the eco-conscious consumer may be as simple as stating the sources of your materials. For others, it may involve a total tear-down and restructuring of internal processes to get a simple certification.

Either way, the proof is there - people are willing to spend more with brands that genuinely put the environment before their own pockets.

And you must avoid greenwashing at all costs.

The policies, ingredients or changes you make must actually benefit the environment. Consumers are quick to see through marketing jargon, and unclarity will breed scepticism.

Intentionally confusing consumers and marketing half-truths is called greenwashing.

"Greenwashing is a deceptive form of marketing that claims a company's products, policies and goals are environmentally friendly and therefore do less damage to nature, with an underlying purpose to increase profits" – Packhelp


A fine example of greenwashing is Apple and the release of their new iPhone 12 that comes without a charger or AirPods. The company is labelling the 50% less packaging as a massive win for the environment and proof that Apple is a brand that genuinely cares for the environment. Sustainability experts even praised Apple for the move.

Apple says that so many people have wireless chargers and wall-chargers already, so there's no need to add them in. However, the cable that's needed to charge the new iPhone isn't compatible with any of the old chargers. This forces users to either buy wireless charging tools, or a specific wall charger that works with the cable. Ultimately this means more consumption, more packaging being used and more products being put into circulation.

If Apple truly cared for the environment, it could make products that are easier to repair and replace parts to keep them usable for longer. Apple's AirPods have been purpose-built to last no more than two years, meaning more AirPods end up in landfill sooner. Samsung's equivalent product has a replaceable battery, extending its lifespan.

Apple's reputation with ethics, another part of being 'good for people and the planet' is questionable, too. Foxconn, the Chinese manufacturer of Apple products, has suicide nets around the factory to prevent overworked employees from jumping and killing themselves.

But that's ok, because Apple’s manufacturers use clean energy, right?

Non-corporate greenwashing

On a smaller scale, it's easy to see that many brands are making the shift to use 'plant-based’ materials. That can be anything from a cosmetic ingredient to a replacement for polyester clothing or a form of ecommerce packaging.

But if you scratch the surface of these 'plant-based' ingredients, you’ll find that they’re soy or corn. So while these plant-based ingredients are recyclable and more natural, cultivating them means clearing more forests to keep up with demand. These crops are usually grown in poorer parts of the world, where crops getting water is more important than local communities getting it.

Both on larger and smaller scales, it's easy to see how greenwashing can happen.

But let's look at a brand that's eco-friendly while also avoiding greenwashing.

Patagonia is a large adventure-wear brand. They strive to be as environmentally friendly as possible, but they know it's a process. Almost all Patagonia products are made from recycled materials, but they purposefully draw attention to the products that aren't. In doing so, they empower their consumer to make a conscious and informed decision.

Patagonia also encourages its customers to 'buy less, buy used, and repair what breaks'.

Apple and Patagonia are two vastly different companies with products and business models worlds apart. What's clear, though, is that one company is upfront with its environmental impact, while the other shies away from what's really happening.

If you're ready to take your business in the right direction and help the environment, here are a few things you can start talking discussing:

Define yourself

Eco, bio, green, sustainable, giving back, renewable - these are all terms that lack a clear and concise definition. By creating your own definition of each term and ensuring that stakeholders know what each word means (and what it doesn't mean), you'll make the process a lot easier for everyone involved. Just ensure that these definitions are for internal use, and not marketing use.

Develop a microstrategy

Knowing exactly what you want to do and why you want to do it will help dictate your next steps.

  • Assimilation puts your environmental policy on your periphery and sees you confirming to changes that require as little financial investment and procedural overall as possible.
  • Mobilisation allows stakeholders and their departments to do their own research and implement their own policies. At the same time, C-levels and executives are open to fundamental change.
  • Transition has a business reshape products, policies, processes, values and attitudes with sustainability as the 'north star', where it will continue to be the primary influence of future decisions.

Be prepared to meet reluctance

It’s likely your initiative will meet reluctance and apprehension due to both personal and professional reasons. Some individuals see the whole concept of being eco-friendly as a waste of time and resources and see no real benefit from changing anything at all. If met with such attitudes, be understanding, compassionate and base your counterarguments on alleviating that reluctance.

Implement sustainability where possible

There's more to implementing sustainability than just changing the raw materials used. Heavy packaging boxes for durable products can be replaced with lightweight custom poly mailers. Warehouses can be placed more centrally to your customers to cut delivery chain emissions. Other departments like marketing, HR, finance and corporate can have sustainability implemented within them somehow.

It won't be perfect at the start

Getting the conversation happening is the essential part. Taking the first step is the most significant and most challenging, but it's also the most important. Effective change doesn't come overnight; consumers know this, and advocates of your brand may jump at the sight of you trying something. Others may watch your transformation with bated breath. Whether it's an all guns blazing approach or baby steps, progress is progress.

Don't use guilt or scare tactics

There's a lot of content based on real and factual information that uses fear to incite change. Arguments like our children inheriting the consequences of our inaction today won't get the ball rolling and can actually have the opposite effect. Fear and guilt won't change a profit-focused mindset.

Don't lead with data

Rather than saying 'the clothing industry is responsible for 10% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions', try 'Changing our supplier of cotton will help us lower our net carbon emissions and generate jobs in regions that need it most'.

Statistics about climate change are abundant but often lead to analysis paralysis. Use the data, but relate it to action that your company can take, as well as the benefit.

Talk about the benefits, not the feature

A golden rule of copywriting is to talk about the benefits of the product, not the feature. You talk about the best night sleep you'll ever have, not a natural mattress made from Canadian goose feathers.

  • Don't talk emissions, talk about reaching a new audience
  • Don't talk overhauls, talk about creating opportunity
  • Don't talk about recycling, talk about the end of life cycle
  • Don't talk renewable energy, talk about fostering innovation

Remember this

Changing business operations to reduce your carbon footprint isn't an overnight task. Nor is it something that you can tick off a list as being 'done'. It's a process. Your goals, targets and strategies will change as consumer sentiment changes, and as you see what works and doesn't work for your brand.

Phil Forbes

Content Writer

Phil is a bearded Australian living in Poland. When he’s not helping take Packhelp’s packaging to the world, he can be found trying not to kill his plants, hanging out with his dog or writing for his own blog expatspoland.


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