How to communicate Corporate Sustainability without Greenwashing – a 10 point checklist

Authors: Ed Fletcher
  • Reading time: 8 min.
  • Posted on: September 27, 2022

This article was originally published in PR Week here – I’ve updated and expanded each point to give a few extra learnings…

Sustainability sits at the core of your business. Like more & more organisations, you are trying to do the right thing for people and planet – which is a huge positive for us all.

But communicating clearly and authentically about it doesn’t always come easy. Obviously, it can mean that the stakes are higher and you need to avoid going out and make misleading claims or give the impression that you’re more sustainable than you are – intended or not.

But don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Here are our guidelines to avoid pitfalls when it comes to telling your impact story

1. Be authentic and transparent, honesty is the best policy

Your customers or supporters want to feel like they have a real connection and interaction with the brands they choose to spend their time engaging with – communicating in a way that’s authentic to your tone of voice, without sugar coating will make your sustainability communications feel honest.

2. Tell the full story, talk about your successes and challenges equally, including how you intend to improve areas you’re still working on

Too often, brands cherry pick “facts and figures” that tell only the story of what is going well – in essence, this is the simplest demonstration of greenwashing. The reality is that there are very few organisations on the planet who are nailing every aspect of sustainability. It’s vital for your brand trust that you talk about the stuff that’s going well AND what you’re struggling with – that goes for all stakeholders, external and internal. You wouldn’t just ignore poor financial performance and only talk about the one big partnership – you have to understand the full picture to put clear plans in place to improve, so talk about both sides of the coin.

3. Set ambitious yet achievable milestones in the short, mid, and long term (not just for 2050!), communicate your roadmaps to reach them and hold yourself accountable to them on a regular basis.

This is a pretty simple one – how many companies have you seen with targets that relate to 2050 (or even further away!). It’s fine to have big long term goals, but those alone are incredibly difficult to be accountable to – this is a classic tactic of fossil fuel producers. Put in a series of targets that show a clear roadmap to becoming carbon neutral or negative, and turn these milestones into an accountability framework that you can regularly report back on.

4. Sustainability is a journey. Be open about where you’ve come from, what you are doing, and where you’re going.

As mentioned above, no one is expecting you to have all the answers to sustainability – framing your sustainability work as a journey can help audiences to visualise and understand the context of your work.

5. Center the voices of people who are on the frontline of your sustainability work

Your work in sustainability is best told through the lens of the people working at the vanguard. Create a a platform for your team, particularly those from marginalized groups across your full value chain, to tell their sustainability story, adding both credibility, and their authentic passion into your communications. 

If you are going to embrace this, make sure you have their full consent and collaboration, especially those in your supply chain. You equally don’t want to “hijack” their story and tell it disingenuously. Where possible, let them be in control of how their story is told – embrace principles of co-production. Read more about centring voices and shifting the power narrative.

6. Sustainability is a company wide goal, not just the sustainability team.

Sustainability should influence all parts of your company, so educate everybody across the organization about your sustainability strategy and efforts, and encourage them to think about how they can contribute – from your financial department to your product team, from board members to shareholders. Taking them on this journey with you will change the way they look at the topic and perceive the valuable part that sustainability has for your company

  • Example 1: did your finance team choose the right bank to support your sustainability goals, or the most ethical pension funds? 
  • Example 2: Did the product team think of the best possible packaging design and materials? You see what we are aiming at here 🙂 
  • Example 3: Make sure that your communications & marketing teams 100% understand what they are talking about to avoid any misleading claims that ‘look good’ on social media but can become a huge pitfall for your brand image if they get called out for being misleading AKA greenwashing

7. Be original and thoughtful to stand out in your market

Do your research, and don’t just opt for the ‘easy option’ (eg. plant a tree for every purchase) – this can be a valuable contribution but there are many potentially more impactful alternatives. And if your competitors are all planting trees, how can you

8. If you face criticism, don’t ignore…engage

There is always the chance that you’ve missed something in your communications, and there will almost always be someone in your digital ecosphere ready to pounce. Don’t get defensive! Even more, don’t ignore. If you’re accused of greenwashing and it was a mistake, hold your hands up, thank the individual for pointing it out, remind both yourself and your audiences that we are all prone to error from time to time. Starting a conversation can only lead to learning, solutions, and diffusing a situation. If it wasn’t a mistake and you got caught out, well, shame on you! But still, the above applies!

9. Measure ALL of your impact and back your claims with evidence

Building on points 2 & 3, make sure that you can support your narrative with actual proof of what you say you’ve done, has actually happened. Whether this is an external audit, or clear data that demonstrates positive impact, don’t rely solely on the story. And don’t be shy of small change – it may only feel small to you.

10. Don’t market your action as the silver bullet, take the holistic approach 

Talk about your sustainability work in the context of the wider climate crisis. And be real, your work is not going to solve everything. That’s OK. A solid dose of hopeful humility will go a long way.

And remember: there isn’t a finish line.

This is a journey. Take your customers, employees, and shareholders on it with you – and keep on rocking for a clean world.

This blog was originally featured in PR Week here and was co-written by Nikki Stones, CleanHub based on a LinkedIn Live – watch the original recording here.