Are Your Customers Worried about Greenwashing?

Most of us are aware of the term “greenwashing,” i.e., the process of conveying a false impression or giving misleading information about the environmental credentials of a company’s products or services. It remains an all-too-common practice in markets everywhere, as executives use sustainability initiatives to project confidence, boost followership, and gain a commercial edge.

However, failing to be upfront and transparent or making unsubstantiated claims is becoming increasingly risky for companies. The likes of Hyundai, Shell, Innocent Drinks, and Oatly are the latest firms to be branded as “greenwashers” for making misleading environmental claims. Hyundai, for example, advertised its new Nexo model by describing it as “a car so beautifully clean, it purifies the air as it goes” – a notion the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled as misleading. Oatly’s claim that it generates “73% less CO2e vs milk” and claims that the dairy and meat industries “emit more CO2 than all the world’s planes, trains, cars, boats etc. combined” was similarly derided. According to the ASA, the company had not been specific enough as to which products it was referring.

It seems that enhanced awareness and understanding of environmental issues has created a more enlightened, climate-literate consumer base. The ASA certainly expects accusations of greenwashing to fuel its work in the years ahead as it shines a “brighter regulatory spotlight on environmental matters in the years to come and tightens up our positions on problematic ad claims where there is an evidence base to do so,” according to ASA’s Toby King.

But according to the latest GlobeScan Healthy & Sustainable Living (HSL) Global Consumer Insights study, most consumers are not concerned about greenwashing. 

The research, which includes the opinions, attitudes, and behaviors of about 30,000 people across 31 markets, shows that shoppers are highly receptive to information about the environmental credentials of products contradicting fears about any potential consumer backlash over companies displaying environmental information or messages. The results show that a majority of people who have been exposed to information about the supposed sustainability of products, across a range of categories, trust what they are being told.

In fact, the data suggests that consumers pay attention and look out for labels and certifications to help them make decisions. The environmental friendliness of a product or service plays a significant role in how people make their purchase decisions, especially for cleaning products, personal care products, and packaged food and beverages, with most saying they generally trust communications for goods where they have seen them. And it is the same story regardless of the age of the consumer. Younger consumers under 30 are not more likely than those over 30 to say that they have at least “some” trust in the information they have received. Those under 30 are however somewhat more likely to express “a great deal” of trust in the messaging.

Campaign groups, including WWF, Greenpeace, and Mighty Earth will remain vigilant when it comes to corporate greenwashing, an issue that was also prominently discussed during the latest UN climate negotiations at COP27. Many net zero pledges are “little more than empty slogans and hype,” according to Catherine McKenna, Canada’s former Environment and Climate Change Minister, who had been tasked with leading a review into corporate promises that might be causing “a surplus of confusion and deficit of credibility,” as stated by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres last year at COP26.

Renewed attention will certainly keep businesses on their toes. Sustainability initiatives should be appropriately communicated, yet the disclosure of achievements and results must not be exaggerated. It remains a tricky balancing act for sustainability and marketing professionals everywhere. But this new evidence suggests sustainability messaging could be ramped up to reach more consumers, many of whom are looking out for this messaging to help them shop better. On average, only half of consumers claim to have seen, read, or heard at least “some” information on sustainability across eight different product categories. The research also shows that those under the age of 30 are significantly more likely to have been reached by brands’ communications or marketing on how environmentally friendly they are, especially by clothing and apparel brands.

Given the apparent limited reach of information on product sustainability – and the positive response this type of information elicits from consumers – companies have a huge opportunity to encourage and guide consumers to make better decisions, especially among older generations. It is time for brands to stop worrying about greenwashing and instead deliver transparent, direct, consistent, and frequent communications that will close the attitude-behavior gap and help to enable responsible consumerism more fully.

About the Healthy & Sustainable Living research program

The Healthy & Sustainable Living Global Consumer Insights research was conducted in June and July 2022. Designed by GlobeScan, it was developed with a range of partners including Akatu InstituteIKEALevi Strauss & Co.M&C Saatchi GroupNYU Stern Center for Sustainable BusinessP&GPepsiCoReckittVisa, and WWF International. The goal of the study is to help organizations better understand the mindsets of consumers globally and what enables them or prevents them from living in a healthier and more sustainable way.