Communicating with Authenticity in the Era of Greenwashing

In this guest post, our Cleantech specialist Alex Pegler discusses why authenticity in communications is key against the flood of Greenwashing


IN 1986 American environmentalist Jay Westerveld was having the time of his life in the Pacific Islands. He had heard about the great surfing to be had off the island of Fiji. So armed with little more than a surfboard and a small knapsack, he checked himself into a hotel.

The hotel he was staying at was undergoing rapid expansion, with heavy diggers and cranes having moved in to double the hotel’s bedroom capacity. This meant a small portion of Fiji’s Tropical Moist Forests had to make way for concrete, tarmac, and all the creature comforts a Western tourist could possibly desire.

Westerveld walked past the vast building work to get to his hotel room. In the bathroom he picked up a card reading: “Save Our Planet: Every day, millions of gallons of water are used to wash towels that have only been used once. You make the choice: A towel on the rack means, ‘I will use again.’ A towel on the floor means, ‘Please replace.’ Thank you for helping us conserve the Earth’s vital resources.” The card was decorated with the three green arrows that make up the recycling symbol.

Westerveld couldn’t fail to see the irony of the situation. And in a 1986 essay penned slightly afterwards, the world was introduced for the first time to the word ‘greenwashing’.

Today the United Nations defines greenwashing “as misleading the public to believe that a company or other entity is doing more to protect the environment than it is.” And there are no shortage of examples of companies accused of the practice.

In 2023, Greenpeace studied published data from 12 of the world’s biggest oil companies including Shell and BP. The analysis found that Shell and BP generated just 0.02 per cent and 0.17 per cent of energy from renewable sources in 2022 respectively. And yet at the same time the firms regularly touted their green credentials in their own marketing materials.

It is perhaps not difficult to understand why consumers have grown so tired of greenwashing. Indeed research by KPMG in 2023 found more than half of consumers say that they would stop buying from a company if they were found to have been misleading in their sustainability claims.

So the message from consumers and civil society is clear – telling the world about your environmental credentials means very little if you can’t back it up with hard action. And this means for all of us in sustainability communications and advocacy, it has never been more important to communicate with authenticity.

Do it right and you will win over new legions of consumers anxious to be seen to be doing right by the planet their children will inherit. Do it wrong, and you risk doing potentially existential damage to your organisation as a whole. That’s why now more than ever before communicating sustainability should be high up on every c-suite to do list.