Are you a victim of greenwash? Q&A with Kath Dewar, GoodSense

By jay

“The key is communicating clearly, with authenticity and transparency, and not trying to pass yourself off as something you’re not”. Find out how to bring an end to greenwash in our interview with Kath Dewar, owner & Managing Director of GoodSense.

What does GoodSense do?

GoodSense provides marketing strategy advice and implementation for organisations that want to be a part of the solution to the world’s problems. We work with a mixture of green businesses, weightless exporters such as learning and development companies and IT, and not for profits. We want our marketing expertise to go towards the industries of the future.

How does GoodSense contribute to a more sustainable New Zealand?

We’re trying to put our expertise behind organisations that we want to see more of in our economy, to support them to be more effective communicators and marketers. In doing that, we’re helping to support a growing green economy that consumers and businesses can trust.

Not only is it good business sense to be working in growth areas, but it’s also our payback for the marketing industry’s contribution to rampant consumerism, climate change, waste and profligate use of resources. You only have to pick up any magazine today and see a whole range of increasingly disposable products advertised. One example is Nespresso capsules – a product designed to have a high waste stream component with no recycling designed to handle it in New Zealand.

I see a big part of our role as championing best practice. Being an independent company we can shine a light on whatever we choose. If something is an issue, we have the freedom to say so, which is why we made a complaint to the Commerce Commission about  Dole last year.

Greenwash is one of GoodSense’s areas of specialisation. How do you define greenwash?

Greenwash is when a company tries to pass itself off as more environmentally or socially responsible than it really is. It can take different forms: it might take the form of imagery on packaging or advertising; it might take the form of claims in words that give a misleading impression; or it might be through association, for example making a song and dance about a cause that a company has donated money to in order to appear green.  Sponsoring a conference is a classic example where companies try to make themselves seem green when they might have no authenticity around their own behaviour at all.

What is the law on greenwash in New Zealand and what are the consequences if you fall foul of it?

The Fair Trading Act, which is administered by the Commerce Commission, has a section on making environmental claims, which covers greenwash. It requires a responsible approach by the advertiser. It means you have to be specific in your claims and you have to be able to justify them. There’s also voluntary self-regulation by the advertising industry through the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

GoodSense was honoured to advise the ASA when they were updating their claims rules recently. We carried out a  benchmarking process of governance guidelines internationally to see where the New Zealand voluntary code needed work. They implemented our recommendations and the environmental guide for voluntary compliance with the ASA is now even tougher than Commerce Commission compliance.

A business can get prosecuted and fined by the Commerce Commission if it fails to comply with the Fair Trade Act requirements. Woolly claims are specifically disallowed. Probably the most commonly perpetrated greenwash, sometimes made with good intentions, is using very generic claims like ‘eco-friendly’. You can only say you are ‘more eco-friendly’ than other players in your industry and you must be able to substantiate it.

For example a cleaning company might claim to be 100% eco-friendly because it uses environmentally friendly cleaning materials, but unless it is taking a fully sustainable cradle-to-cradle approach to every aspect of its service and product life cycles – and I don’t know any organisation that does that yet – then it can’t claim to be absolutely eco-friendly. Pretty much universally, the requirements in most countries that New Zealand businesses export to, and certainly within New Zealand itself, allow you to make relative claims but not sweeping claims.

What’s your advice to businesses to make sure they don’t inadvertently mislead consumers through greenwashing?

The most important thing is to be really authentic in what you set out to do. When you’ve made some meaningful progress, tell your stories but be candid about what else remains to be done.  Be genuine rather than trying to seem more socially or environmentally friendly than you really are.

Look at the most substantial impact that you have. If you’re a bank, for instance, the greatest impact is what you lend money for and what you invest money in. It’s great to change the light bulbs in your office, do staff litter picking and carry out green office practices, but you’re only scratching the surface of the real impact that you have. If you’re going to make claims about being a socially and environmentally-responsible bank you need to make absolutely sure that your lending and investment policy supports a future which is more environmentally and socially responsible.

How can SBN members ensure the content of their profiles on the Sustainable Business Directory doesn’t include greenwash?

Being authentic and specific are probably the most important things. Make sure that what you’re claiming is robust in the first place, be specific and be able to back it up.  So if you claim to have processes in place, make sure they’re written down, ideally published on your website. If you claim to have certification, make sure it’s up to date.

Don’t underestimate your customers’ intelligence. While some people just want to see a green ‘stamp of approval’, others will want to dig deeper. For example, if your profile talks about having ethical work practices in New Zealand, some people may check out what happens further down your supply chain if you’re sourcing from overseas. Do you have a policy of buying Fairtrade, for example? Be really specific about what you do and report where you are on your journey. Being candid is really important. No organisations are perfect, so being transparent about where the problems lie and what you’re doing to sort them out makes sense.

You’re not necessarily expected to have overcome all your issues, but you should be clear about what the issues are, how you are making progress, and how you are reporting that transparently. The worst thing is to shine a spotlight on one thing you’re doing really well when the rest is questionable or dubious.

Don’t be afraid to tell your stories. People want to be able to buy more socially and environmentally responsible products and services. So the key is to tell your stories in a respectful and transparent way.

As with all good marketing, you’ve got to start with who your target audience is and what information will be relevant to them. We can achieve a lot in our marketing if we take a moment to think about what our audience want to know. It comes down to respect. The key is communicating clearly, with authenticity and transparency, and not trying to pass ourselves off as something we’re not.

What’s your advice to consumers if they suspect a business or brand of greenwash?

Both the Commerce Commission and ASA require people to complain if they feel misled in any way or if they feel advertising has overstated a claim. So for greenwash to be curtailed we not only need responsible promotion but we need commercial buyers and consumers to take action and complain to the Commerce Commission or ASA if they think that something isn’t legitimate. Neither can act without a complaint.

Businesses can lay complaints as well as consumers, and it’s important that business managers and professionals take responsibility for what’s happening in their sectors. If you’re laying a complaint about a competitor you need to declare that.

We have far fewer complaints about environmental claims in New Zealand than equivalent countries overseas. That’s partly because we’ve had less profile of greenwash-style advertising in New Zealand; partly because our regulations are good; and also because the sector here isn’t as advanced as in Europe or the States where there is a greater level of maturity around green business. Because there haven’t been so many cases here, people don’t know they can make complaints.

Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?

Meeting businesses every week that are making exciting leaps and bounds, and being able to help them to find the nuggets in their story that will really resonate and take them to the next level.   I love trying to find that defining sound bite for an organisation that can help a brand, product or service really fly in the marketplace.

I’m a big believer in collaborative process. We run workshops with our clients, which is our preferred way of working, because you bring together the deep, passionate knowledge that an organisation has with a healthy dose of external scepticism. That’s when that spark of magic  happens to  create messages that resonate succinctly, effectively and emotionally with customers,.  

Have you got a nugget of wisdom for our readers?

Yes, one really significant marketing opportunity for New Zealand brands that are making genuine progress on sustainability is to be outspoken about the things they – and their customers – care about.  And yet we very rarely see companies here taking a public stand for what they believe in.  It’s much more common in the US, for example, where 20 top brands got together in October to publicly challenge Obama to take stronger climate change action.  They cited their own efforts and the harm climate change was doing to their operations worldwide.   The general silence from business in New Zealand means there are great PR opportunities for brands that are willing to speak up.  

For further information about GoodSense, check out their website or follow them on Twitter.

You can also email Kath Dewar directly on kath@goodsense.co.nz

Find out how to make a complaint to the Commerce Commission or the Advertising Standards Authority.