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How to communicate brand sustainability - avoid these traps!


Consumers and marketers are in agreement on sustainability. Both parties agree that brands need to make it a business priority – but brands are struggling to communicate their green credentials.

In a recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Marketing, it was revealed that nearly two-thirds (63%) of the public want to see better communication around the sustainability of products and services from brands.

Consumers are prepared to vote with their wallets and save their money for brands who pass the green test. Younger consumers are particularly strong on this, with 59% of this 18-34-year-old age group more likely to buy products or services from a brand that promotes sustainability vs just 31% among those aged 55 and over.

Alert to this fact, more than half (55%) of marketers say they have made sustainability a business priority.

Marketers feel like they’re ‘walking on eggshells’

As a brand, you can’t just do ‘a bit of sustainability’. You’ve got to go all-in and commit to making your business greener from the ground up.

If you don’t, you can expect to be called out for it.

In a 2021 report from the European Commission, nearly half (42%) of green online claims from businesses were found to be “exaggerated, false or deceptive”. In most of these ‘greenwashing’ cases, the business was found to not have provided sufficient information for consumers to judge the claim’s accuracy.

Chucking around words like “conscious”, “eco-friendly” and “sustainable” isn’t enough.

This won’t come as a surprise to marketers. In CMI’s survey, almost half (49%) said they were wary of working on sustainability marketing campaigns for fear of being accused of greenwashing.

The marketers suggest it’s a lack of relevant sustainability marketing qualifications which leaves them feeling like they’re walking on eggshells. More than three-quarters (76%) of marketers say they’ve been involved in some form of sustainability work over the past five years, despite a lack of formal training.


Honesty is key

For brands, the old adage of ‘honesty is the best policy’ is applicable when it comes to sustainability claims.

Amid impending regulation to stem the volume of greenwashing, and increasingly discerning consumers, if you try to mislead your audience with your green claims, you’re likely to be uncovered.

While consumers want to hear more from brands on their sustainability efforts, that isn’t a licence to ‘fudge the books’. Gen Z has been dubbed ‘The Honest Generation’ for its eagle-eyed assessment of brands. In research by Futerra, 79% of the age group think brands aren’t honest enough when it comes to being environmentally friendly – just 12% say they’re very satisfied with brands’ efforts to make positive change in the world, so clearly more effort needs to be made to communicate sustainability efforts for the green economy.

Getting the message across

As we know, Gen Z try to avoid traditional ads, but crave authenticity from brands.

So, when it comes to messaging that works for Gen Z, advertisers need to spend as much time communicating their brand values as they do their product benefits – and continuing this throughout the customer journey – to really assure customers that there’s no over exaggeration, and that there’s full transparency. 

When expressing your values, be aware of your audience but also the audience you want to attract and appeal to. There’s no point in expressing values that don’t align with your company and bringing in an audience that will see through this when there’s an inevitable slip. Sustainability marketing and brand messages should match up, aligning with internal behaviours and external messaging.  

This is basic content marketing – you need credibility in the area you’re talking about. As much as you might want to please your audience with your green claims, you have to earn them fairly. By being transparent, honest and credible, your audience will be more open to meeting you in the middle.


Take your audience on your sustainability journey

For most brands, they’re not going to be able make the kind of green claims that consumers want right now. The temptation is to ‘show willing’ but, as some brands discover to their cost, that can prove problematic in itself.

But consumers might be able to accept that you’re making improvements to how you do business, as part of a longer-term sustainability journey.

Communicating this journey in regular ads is difficult, as they don’t afford you the time and the room you need to do it justice. You could throw around snippets of copy, but expect consumers to go looking for some context – or they might just assume the claims are bogus as there’s not enough evidence to back them up.

Long-form branded content gives you the space to lay out what you’re doing, explaining how you’re helping your customers, potential customers and wider society.

Climate change is the biggest constant issue in the world – give it the thought and space it requires.