“Communicating on climate change is about educating and mobilizing audiences to take action to confront the climate crisis.
“Everyone can play a part by raising their voice, sharing solutions, and advocating for change – shaped by different experiences, cultural contexts, and underlying values.” The United Nations.
It might be tempting to think that small communities like Jersey or Guernsey are insignificant or that changing things here will have a negligible impact on such a huge problem but of course, as the UN says, we all have a responsibility to help tackle the climate crisis. Every positive action, however small, is still a step in the right direction.
Importantly, brands have a huge role to play, and as someone passionate about the PR industry, I also believe our profession – the industry of influence and reputation management – has tremendous responsibility and opportunity to make a difference.
What is the climate communications challenge?
In the latest IPCC report, scientists have declared, definitely and unanimously, that climate change is caused by people: “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land.”
It is clear that if we are to reach the Paris Agreement target of reaching Net Zero by 2050, people need to change their consumption habits and every industry and sector faces the challenge of transitioning to become carbon neutral. This target means completely negating the amount of greenhouse gases produced by human activity, which will be achieved by reducing emissions and implementing methods of absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
It’s time for people with different skills to pick up the baton, and that includes marketing and PR teams. Together, we need to:
- Help people believe they can make a real difference to this huge task
- Educate people on why they may need to make different choices
- We need to influence and encourage behaviour changes
- Keep people motivated and on task over the next 25 years and beyond
- We need to communicate equitably, and not leave anyone behind
What is the opportunity?
From a commercial perspective there are many reasons to start to communicate the actions you are taking to support the efforts to reach net zero:
- Relevance – the world is changing and brands who get left behind will lose their audience
- Choice – a growing number of consumers want to buy options that genuinely have a positive climate impact. Equally, people may switch off from organisations they see as harming the environment
Research from Carbon Trust showed that 66% of consumers polled said they feel more positive about companies that can demonstrate they are making efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of their products.
But there is a trust gap, according to the IPCC, trust in ‘green information’ from business and gov is low (10%); there is a clear opportunity for trusted brands to flourish and set a high bar for transparency on their climate impact.
What is the risk?
Communicating about the environmental impact of a product or service does come with challenges. And because people could make poor purchasing decisions based on misleading information there is a real focus on greenwashing.
Naturally, as the appetite in the market for “green” and ESG badged products grows and grows, so too grows the number of legislative and regulatory initiatives intended to prevent or mitigate the risk of greenwashing. This has become increasingly complicated, and organisations need to be aware of the frameworks, standards and reporting requirements that are most relevant to their sector.
Equally dangerous is fake news as climate misinformation could lead to skepticism or denial and confuse the public, contribute to political inaction, and stall support for effective climate policy.
Why is it so hard?
According to the European Commission, 42% of corporate environmental claims made online are likely to be false or deceptive, while over half of online green claims lack evidence.
It’s easy to get the language or claims wrong, even with the best intentions. Phrases and words like “green”, “net zero”, “ESG”, “sustainability”, “carbon neutral” and “eco-friendly” are used interchangeably and sometimes incorrectly.
What is Greenwashing?
According to the EU Taxonomy Regulation,1 greenwashing refers to the practice of gaining an unfair competitive advantage by marketing a financial product as environmentally friendly, when in fact basic environmental standards have not been met.
The accusation of “greenwashing” is being increasingly used against brands that are seen to be conveying a false impression of their green credentials and misleading consumers into thinking they are helping the planet by choosing their products, when they are not.
Greenwashing is a reputation risk for any organisation, but also for the movement itself. The public needs to trust the actions we need to take to reduce our impact. If that trust is broken, people will switch off or actively dispute the advice they are given. Greenwashing puts the whole movement and “green market” at risk.
Signs of greenwashing include vague language or unclear phrases, loose claims, “greened” packaging with images of nature, pseudo certifications and words like “bio”, “eco”, “biodegradable” and “clean”.
Over the last couple of years, The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has banned adverts by Ryanair, Shell, H&M, Innocent, Persil, HSBC and many more.
The ASA ruled against this advertisement for being ‘unclear’. The phrase “Kinder on the planet“ was questioned as a vague comparison – kinder on the planet than what?
In 2022, the ASA banned two HSBC advertisements for being “misleading” about the company’s plans to reduce harmful emissions. The advertising watchdog said that the posters “omitted material information” about HSBC’s activities.
One of Innocent’s videos promoted the product using the phrase “fix up the planet”, which the ASA decided exaggerated the environmental benefit of the product and was misleading. Whilst Innocent is actively reducing the environmental impact of their products, it is ultimately a drinks brand that uses single-use plastic bottles.
In mid 2023, the ASA ruled that a Shell advert gave viewers the impression that low-carbon energy products were a significant part of the company’s energy portfolio. The watchdog said the ads “misrepresented the contribution that lower-carbon initiatives played, or would play in the near future” compared with the rest of the company’s operations.
What about Greenhushing?
Whilst the reputation risk of greenwashing is not to be underestimated, equally dangerous is staying quiet or greenhushing.
Greenhushing refers to the act of downplaying or suppressing a company’s environmental efforts. This might be seen in a lack of public reporting for example.
It’s important to note that greenhushing is not always a deliberate act with malicious intent. Some companies choose not to communicate their environmental goals out of fear of backlash, without intending to deceive their audience.
For instance, ASOS recently removed the ‘Responsible Edit’ clothes filter section of its website without any public announcement.
How we can help
So, how do you get it right and avoid greenwashing and the reputational risk that brings?
Find out in part two of our Climate Classroom blog, where we talk about the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) principles and some of the key principles of communicating about your environmental impact.