These new rules, which address the need for reliable and verifiable consumer information, come hot on the heels of a recent study by the Commission finding that more than half of green claims by companies in the EU were vague or misleading, and 40% were completely unsubstantiated.
As Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal points out “Green claims are everywhere: ocean-friendly t-shirts, carbon-neutral bananas, bee-friendly juices, 100% CO2-compensated deliveries and so on. Unfortunately, way too often these claims are made with no evidence and justification whatsoever. This opens the door to greenwashing and puts companies making genuinely sustainable products at a disadvantage.”
The implications for consumer brands are clear - not every business has a game-changing environmental solution to shout about, however what they do share is an obligation to the next generations to ensure they are doing their utmost to decarbonise their business processes and implement more sustainable business models.
Every business should now be in transition, but we need to be able to differentiate between those that are serious about sustainability and the opportunists making a fast buck on the back of overclaims. The trouble is, this isn’t always black and white. It could be, if every corporation split its next economy business from its dirty cashcow legacy business, but few are prepared to do that in a market-driven system which rewards short-termism and obfuscation. However, the climate emergency demands immediate action, but perfection should not become the enemy of good.
THE CLIMATE TIME BOMB IS TICKING
The Commission’s Directive on Green Claims could swing the pendulum from brands feverishly marketing their green claims - often regardless of whether these were authentic or not - to brands recoiling from a greenwashing backlash and opting to downplay their sustainability efforts. Both scenarios are counter-productive and potentially damaging, when time is running out.
The brand journey to net zero is taking too long, the road has many slippery bends and bumps along the way, so it requires careful navigation, applying all four Cs of problem solving: communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity.
Branding has an important role to play, explaining that achieving sustainability goals is essential, yet the transition is full of ambiguities. In this climate emergency, imperfect solutions have a role to play - as long as the benefits are verified - and can make an important difference in the race to net zero. Imperfect is okay, but you should never spell it ‘I’m perfect’.
As brand strategists and designers we can encourage consumer adoption of more sustainable products and services, based on facts which can be trusted. This is not just about clear and complete information, it’s also about differentiation and counterpoint, making sustainable brands more attractive propositions than unsustainable ones. Branding, after all, has always been about promoting preference and the promise of consistent quality. Sustainability is now the new dimension of trust.
Hopefully, the era of vague or misleading claims, where the likes of Ryanair announcing itself as Europe’s “lowest emissions airline”, as if any airline is green, through to Persil’s unsubstantiated claims that it is ‘kinder on the planet’ and Nestlé’s big claims and baby steps to tackle the climate crisis, is thankfully coming to an end.
A NEW AGE OF RESPONSIBLE, SUSTAINABLE BRANDING?
Consumers’ appetite for positive change is driving their wariness, but this is also an opportunity for a new era of responsible, sustainable branding.
And not before time.
According to a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) we will never have this opportunity again, where we know that the situation is so conclusively calamitous, yet the majority of climate solutions to avoid the worst consequences of climate change already exist. In this context, there is no excuse for inaction.
Every brand now needs to rethink and retell its story through the lens of the climate emergency. Whether you are on-track, behind the curve, or not yet started, brands need to define a clear and honest brand narrative on how they intend to achieve their sustainability goals, and what evidence they will share along the way. Hollow green claims now remind us of failed politicians who thought they could rule by soundbites and slogans, and, as long as they were repeated enough, we would all believe them.
Belief, of course, requires no evidence. Fact, on the other hand, requires independent verification. Everything in between is just opinion. We now know that the European Commission is looking for evidence, so brands better be sure of the facts behind their green claims.
Regardless of whether the shift to a sustainable economy is driven by overwhelming consumer demand or the introduction of government legislation, those brands that make genuine efforts to become more sustainable by reducing their impact on the planet and improving social justice must also ensure their brand narratives accurately reflect their every effort.
While we all strive for perfect solutions, more brands taking positive actions is what will really matter, and while the Directive on Green Claims recognises that false propositions could have catastrophic consequences, let’s accept that few brands are perfect, but most can be good.