'Sustainability' in Advertising - A Bullshit Buzzword?

It’s no surprise that sustainability advertising is on the rise. A new decade after all – electric vehicles are in, plastic straws are out, and you can find the word ‘natural’ stickered front and center on almost anything. Consumer attitudes are changing, and the ad industry is never slow to follow the money.

Environmentalism has swept into the mainstream consciousness with tsunami-like force, and brought with it a tide of socially responsible consumers who are prepared to go out of their way to find products that align with their values. It’s a wonderful thing – and it’s not without precedent either. Daily news stories of the ocean being choked by plastic and the irreversible and catastrophic impact of climate change are enough to make most level-headed individuals think twice about their spending habits and how to improve them.


Such a pronounced sea-change in consumer choice has paved the way for sustainability advertising to be a viable (and lucrative) means of selling products. Market research shows that people are often willing to pay more for what they perceive to be the better option. A recent study by Neilson found that chocolate that was labelled with environmental claims being sold at a per-dollar rate 5 times higher than that of regular chocolate, and another report based on a survey of 2001 people showed that 83% would always pick the brand that has a better record of sustainability, and 70% would be willing to pay more for products that protect the environment and human rights.


Advertising acts as a kind of positive feedback loop in this kind of scenario: consumers choose to spend ethically, which spurs advertisers to promote products in a sustainable light, which in turn persuades more consumers to make ethical choices. In that sense the conversation self-proliferates, adding to the greater good with ever increasing returns. But what happens when the advertisers (or their clients) aren’t entirely honest?


You may have heard of the term ‘greenwashing’ before. It was coined in the 1980’s by an undergrad called Jay Westerveld, whom used it to refer to the practice of a hotel of asking guests to reuse their towels to ‘help the environment,’ when the reality of the situation was that it cost them less in laundry expenses. Greenwashing is now a commonplace term for companies leveraging environmentalism to sell their products without actually walking the walk.


Of course, greenwashing was around before there was even a term for it. Here’s an ad from the 80’s by one of the most infamous offenders, Chevron – a multinational oil giant still regularly in the news for oil-slicks and habitat destruction across the world. They weren’t the only offenders of painfully laughable hypocritical claims either, check out this gem from DuPont, who had the gall to unveil their new line of double-hulled oil tankers to a video of animals clapping along to Beethoven.


Thirty-odd years later and greenwashing hasn’t disappeared. Instead, it has become vastly more sophisticated. These practices have resulted in a sort of moral minefield for advertisers and consumers alike; people’s trust in brands is at an all-time low, but at the same time they’re more ready to put their money where their mouth is than ever before.


A recent report for marketers by Futerra Sustainability Communications highlights the fact that often advertisers end up greenwashing their products not in a deliberate attempt to deceive, but rather because they’re over enthusiastic about solving the sales problem. The report outlines 10 common pitfalls of greenwashing, which is a useful resource for companies and consumers alike:


1.     Fluffy Language: Words with no clear meaning, e.g. eco-friendly

2.     Green Products vs. Dirty Company: Such as energy efficient light bulbs made in a factory that pollutes rivers

3.     Suggestive Pictures: Green images that indicate an unjustified green impact e.g. flowers blooming from exhaust pipes

4.     Irrelevant Claims: Emphasizing one tiny green attribute when everything else is un-green

5.     Best in Class:Declaring that you are slightly better than the rest, even if the rest are pretty terrible

6.     Just Not Credible: ‘Greening’ a dangerous product doesn’t make it safe, e.g. eco-friendly cigarettes

7.     Gobbledygook:Jargon and information that only a scientist could check or understand

8.     Imaginary Friends: A ‘label’ that looks like third party endorsement, except it’s made up

9.     No Proof: It could be right, but where’s the evidence?

10.  Out-right Lying: Totally fabricated claims or data


Many companies unwittingly commit one or more of these marketing sins; many more employ them to intentionally obscure the truth about their product. Then there are the ‘eco-unicorns,’ the brands that are actively tackling sustainability issues head on by changing their approach and offering consumers a transparent window into their business practices. The self-described ‘activist’ clothing company Patagonia and plastic-free beauty brand Ethique are good examples of brands whose sustainability initiatives are based on core values, rather than just marketing strategies.  


Understandably, the transition to sustainable business practices is a complex task that doesn’t just happen overnight. On the bright side, the market force behind the shift to sustainability is rapidly gaining momentum, not only from consumers, but from the boardroom as well. For many companies change comes down to the bottom line of costs vs. revenue – thankfully technological advancements are beginning to make it more profitable in some cases to manufacture sustainably, a fact that the number crunchers at Adidas must have picked up on when they recently announced that they are only going to use recycled plastics in their products from 2024.


If anything is going to pre-empt change for the better, it’s the money. That is to say that the market shift towards environmentalism is not only sustainable for the planet and its inhabitants, but is beginning to be – if it isn’t already – a more sustainable long-term business model. So, while the days of greenwashing are far from over, the time of sustainable advertising is only just beginning.

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