Unmasking greenwashing: Five tips on how to avoid it

by Craig Minter - Senior Sustainability Consultant
| minute read

The global imperative to live more sustainably is growing as the doomsday clock reaches closer to midnight than ever before. Working towards a sustainable future that is cleaner, safer and healthier starts with the decisions we make today.

The increasing focus on what is environmentally sustainable is rapidly becoming a deciding factor in the purchasing decisions of customers, businesses, and governments. And, as we recognise Earth Day 2024 we’re reminded of the importance of environmental conservation and sustainability, encouraging us to all come together and take action.

Action needs to be real, and quantifiable. It needs to be proactive and responsive to the ever-changing needs of the world, and we need to be upfront if we ever get it wrong.

As knowledge and understanding of environmental issues increases worldwide, more and more businesses claim to be prioritising environmental sustainability.

At the same time, however, there are a growing number of inaccurate claims which, although often unintentional, are potentially harmful. This has also led to heightened scrutiny from regulatory bodies with stricter enforcement and a higher level of fines being introduced in countries across Europe and beyond.

In the UK, the Financial Conduct Authority is due to publish finalised guidance on its anti-greenwashing rule, in 2024. And, the Competition and Markets Authority is investigating how consumer protection legislation can be used to tackle false or misleading environmental claims that affect consumers.

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing was a term first used by Jay Westerveld in 1986 to describe the hotel industry practice of reusing towels, questioning on if this was indeed an environmental strategy, or a cost saving measure. It’s now commonly used to refer to any claims of environmental benefit that are more focussed on saving money or increasing revenue.

It’s described in the Cambridge dictionary as 'behaviour or activities that make people believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.”'Variations of the term have previously included greenrinsing (continually changing targets before achieved), greenhushing (hiding or under reporting data), and greenlabelling (advertising incorrectly that a product is green).

How to avoid greenwashing?

In 2022, a study showed that between 58-68% of leaders surveyed recognised that their companies were guilty of greenwashing in varying forms. This shows a lot more work needs to be done to avoid this activity, but how?

1. Use Accurate, Transparent Data

Businesses must ensure that using accurate and valid data to inform decision-making is a priority with any environmental claim. All environmental claims must be fair, clear, not misleading, and most importantly, accurate.

Collecting and using accurate data helps organisations defend against greenwashing claims, and allows businesses to evidence their claims with facts.

Accuracy in data is the key to avoiding greenwashing and provides the foundation to enable the following steps to be achieved. We’d recommend the use of dashboarding management systems to advance knowledge, forecast and reduce environmental risk, therefore enabling organisations to efficiently manage their sustainability data.

2. Set Realistic Goals

Protecting the environment will not always go to plan, and companies need to remain transparent. Demonstrating that accurately reporting variances in environmental performance holds greater value than over inflation of performance. Action needs to be pursued with integrity without inflated claims that are unrealistic with little to no substance behind them.

No target is complete without a plan on how to achieve it, Climate Transition and Carbon Reduction Plans are key to inform how you plan to achieve any published goals in a segmented manner. 

3. Engage Stakeholders

It’s important that businesses think about how they report on their environmental performance holistically, in a way that avoids vague descriptions that do not fully explain the actual impacts of the product or service.

Education on environmental performance both internally and externally,  is critical to ensure that information provided is accurate to real business performance and reduces the temptation to utilise buzzwords that would potentially be classifiable as greenwashing.

4. Verification

With the above steps, businesses can transparently communicate their goals and performance against them. It’s recommended that any data is verified by a third party to reduce the risk of error and show due diligence in the organisation’s environmental performance procedures.

For example, at Sopra Steria, we have a clear Net-Zero goal which is verified by the Science Based Target initiative, and produce reporting via external bodies such as CDP. This has helped us achieve a Climate ‘A List’ status for the 7th consecutive year in 2024, and Ecovadis Platinum status every year since the tier was introduced.

5. Adapt to change

The environmental sustainability landscape continually changing, with regulation and reporting standards improving regularly. Companies must remember to adapt to these changes, ensuring that practices respond effectively to any challenges and opportunities that are presented.

Businesses should strive to be responsive to advances in technology, stakeholder feedback and regulatory reform in this adaptable manner, to prevent a risk of greenwashing.

Sopra Steria

Sopra Steria provides Consulting support to organisations that are looking to create and achieve their Sustainability goals. For further information please reach out to Andrew, Head of Sustainability Consulting, at andrew.grigg@soprasteria.com

For more information about Sopra Steria's data-driven, human-centred, and technology-backed approaches to Sustainability, reach out to Craig, Senior Sustainability Consultant, at craig.minter@soprasteria.com 

Read more about how effective supply chain engagement and collaboration can help you achieve Net Zero




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