An Evergreen Guide to Sustainability Communications—Without Greenwashing

Whether you’re a business making sincere attempts to shrink your carbon footprint, an agency working to present a client in their most eco-friendly light, or a consumer simply trying to make conscious choices at the supermarket, chances are you’ve been influenced by or unwittingly perpetuated some form of greenwashing. In fact, it may have just happened again, right under your nose. Consider some key terms in that opening sentence:

Carbon footprint.


Conscious choices.

Expressions like these are the building blocks of modern greenwashing campaigns, because they’re so often deployed with impunity and without proper context. By now, this language might seem innocuous, but there’s a reason why sustainability claims have become a mainstay of marketing communications: because they work! Signaling that your product or service is a simple way to live a more environmentally friendly lifestyle is an incredibly powerful selling proposition, particularly as the threat of climate change looms larger in the public consciousness. Today more than ever before, people want to feel good about the brands they support.

But, as the old saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. Brands are expected to be transparent and accountable, to not run afoul of rules and regulations, and to generally be good corporate citizens. As for agency partners, whose marketing efforts help brands maintain their social license to operate, it’s up to them to understand the landscape and recognize when sustainability messaging—however well-intentioned—veers into greenwashing territory.

Sounds simple, right? Follow the rules and don’t mislead the public. But, as today’s marketers and brands surely know by now, the line between legitimate claims and greenwashed tropes can be a blurry one. It can be difficult to determine what exactly constitutes a “conscious” or “eco-friendly” choice. And the landscape is always changing. So, before making any sustainability-focused statements or claims, it can be helpful to establish a few universal truths. Keeping these in mind will help your brand or your client ensure that sustainability messaging is both sincere and substantive.

Environmental concerns are here to stay

No way around this one. In a recent survey from Pew Research Center spanning 17 countries across North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region, 72% of respondents reported being somewhat or very concerned about climate change. And 80% reported being willing to make significant changes to the way they live and work. In advanced economies like these, changing the way people live means changing the way they consume. We’re already seeing this play out, with heightened awareness of the climate crisis driving greater interest in sustainable choices among consumers. And because a higher percentage of younger consumers—Gen Z and Millennials—cite sustainability as a top priority, that interest should only grow in the years to come.

Take electric vehicles, for example. While the percentage of consumers driving EVs today surely lags behind the share of marketing dollars devoted to them—showcases like the Super Bowl this year gave the impression that nearly all new vehicles are electric—they’re nonetheless making unprecedented inroads in the automotive market. The market for plant-based meat, a common alternative for emissions-conscious eaters, is projected to grow to nearly $25 billion by 2030. The average annual growth rate of solar energy has exploded in the last decade.

So, rather than dismissing these developments as a fad or a bubble or the temporary result of some tweak in the algorithm, brands and agencies would be wise to proceed as if this shift in preference toward sustainable choices is permanent. That means treating environmental concerns as a core part of your business strategy and, by extension, a core part of your communications strategy.

Sustainability can’t be siloed

That may sound like an outsized degree of emphasis to place on sustainability. You might be asking yourself, why should I be talking about environmental issues when my company is in the healthcare space? To help answer that question, it’s useful to look at Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) as an analogue. Companies with leading initiatives have found ways to integrate their DEI philosophy and goals into their larger communications strategies, without creating confusion about what their products and services are.

Salesforce is known worldwide as a leader in CRM software. Rather than ordering up some canned diversity statement from a siloed department at an opportune moment, they consistently communicate their commitment to DEI at every level of the organization—and it has only clarified their mission. “Progress may be slow at first, but a cultural shift will become part of the fabric of the organization,” said Salesforce Director of Product Marketing Sarah Anderson in a 2021 blog post. Through this cultural shift and their continued action and the credibility it has earned them, statements like this—from their story of the brand—hit harder and ring truer:

“In unity, there is power.”

Another example is Motion’s client Rush University System for Health, whose mission to improve community health is in lockstep with its DEI philosophy, which makes both statements stronger and more credible.

The same holds true for sustainability initiatives. Creating initiatives that are actually, er, sustainable can’t happen when environmental considerations are relegated to the kids table, only to be mentioned in an Earth Day social post or in boilerplate language in the bowels of your ‘About Us’ page. Building a culture of sustainability will take prolonged effort and action. But over time, a more environmentally conscious way of thinking will begin to permeate your entire organization, giving you the perspective and the credibility to make bold statements, like the DEI examples above.

It’s almost as if DEI and sustainability are somehow related…

Environmental justice is social justice

The environmental movement has evolved significantly in recent decades. Today it’s less about saving trees and polar bears and more focused on the threat that ecological breakdown poses to humans. Crucially, this also includes acknowledging that the climate crisis is already perpetuating and exacerbating existing inequalities. That said, conducting business in an environmentally responsible manner can be a first step toward restorative justice.

So, what does that mean for you and your communications strategy? It means that there’s no decoupling what’s good for people and what’s good for the planet. You might be making a real effort to highlight your genuinely commendable people-centric philosophy or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives. But if you follow that up with a thrown-together sustainability statement that’s little more than abstract, unsubstantiated pseudo-promises, it may well cast doubt on everything that preceded it. Salesforce, once again, is a leader in showing their commitment to climate action, while keeping people—particularly vulnerable populations—at the center of the discussion.

Consumers today are savvy. They see through nothingburger sustainability language and flimsy attempts to control the narrative. For example, this spot from oil giant ExxonMobil about converting algae into energy did not play well with discerning consumers, who were quick to point out the corporation’s decades of environmental and societal malpractice.

Morality aside, this type of research in renewables represents only a tiny portion of what companies like ExxonMobil do, so it’s not exactly an accurate representation of their business interests. (Another widespread form of greenwashing!) When talking about sustainability, it’s best to stick closer to what you actually do.

Focus on operations, not optics

Now that we’ve properly contextualized environmental concerns, and established that your sustainability messaging needs to be consistent with the other attributes and values your brand espouses, what exactly is worth talking about? This will obviously vary by company or by industry, but the focus should largely be on your business operations and practices, rather than voluntary internal programs or superficial displays of solidarity. For instance, better to talk about the goods you produce being recyclable (so long as they are, indeed, recyclable) than how committed you are to recycling your La Croix cans in the office.

That might sound obvious, but it can be difficult to prioritize systemic, operational change over more immediate, lifestyle change—for companies and individuals alike. It feels good to recycle or ride your bike to work. A team beach cleanup makes for much better social content than a team outing to vote in the midterms. These types of internal initiatives are great, and they can be proof that your organization’s commitment to sustainable practices is actually resonating with employees and becoming part of your culture. But they can’t be what your entire sustainability strategy is built around.

One brand doing this effectively is Patagonia, showing consumers how every garment is sourced and manufactured through ethical, environmentally responsible practices. Motion’s client Rheem, demonstrates its commitment to sustainability by highlighting goals for reducing manufacturing emissions and training employees in sustainable best practices by 2025.

On an industrial scale, only systemic changes will truly move the needle in the fight to reverse climate change. So, when thinking about your organization’s sustainability communications, it’s best to bring your operational improvements to the forefront of the discussion—even if those improvements are newly minted long-term goals.

Better to write the future than rewrite the past

To paraphrase the legendary environmentalist Bill McKibben, acknowledging a small amount of hypocrisy is the price of admission when joining the sustainability movement. For individuals, this means understanding that using things like fossil fuels and Styrofoam, because that’s what’s available in this world you were born into, doesn’t disqualify you from striving to create a world without them. Nobody’s perfect, and inspiring change for the better begins with compassion.

The same can be said for companies and organizations. Although there are certain corporations that have obfuscated facts, consolidated power, and knowingly engaged in the destruction of the planet—and they very much deserve to suffer consequences—most companies are in a similar boat as the individuals described above. They’re likely hanging on to some unsustainable practices, because that’s been the only available or feasible option. Moving business in a more sustainable direction starts with compassion.

So, when sitting down to craft a sustainability statement or other related messaging, keep your focus on the future. Instead of engaging in revisionist history and retroactive greenwashing of your company’s past performance, talk about your goals for the coming years. How you plan to achieve them. How you’ll quantify success. How you plan to integrate more sustainable practices at various levels of your organization. How those commitments intersect with other initiatives like DEI or CSR. And if your goals don’t include detailed action plans with proprietary studies and policy like Salesforce, that’s alright. You just need to start somewhere.

At Motion, we work with our brand partners to strike the ideal balance of current and aspirational qualities in their communications, giving them room to evolve while remaining true to their personality and purpose. As environmental concerns become more pressing and mainstream, the ability to articulate your goals and commitments to an increasingly savvy audience could be what swings consumer preference in your favor. And who knows, you might just help save the planet in the process.

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