Reprinted from GreenBuzz, a free weekly newsletter. Subscribe here.
So, you want your company to be seen as sustainable? Great! You’re part of a growing movement. Appearing to be sustainable has become a priority inside many of the world’s largest companies. And companies that get really good at appearing sustainable are commonly referred to as "greenwashers."
You can become one, too.
To help, I’m offering a dozen tips and insights that can get you further, faster.
1. Make bold commitments. Announcing a goal for 2030 is low-hanging fruit (and kinda soon) so why not go for the brass ring: 2050? No one will be around to remember what you said way back in the early '20s. The main thing is that you’ve made a bold, courageous commitment you can talk about far and wide, and for years to come.
2. Tell a great story. Hey, who understands facts these days, let alone believes them? Besides, others will likely counter your facts with their own alternative facts. So, what’s the point? Serve up a menu of stories about your company’s "sustainability journey," and the public will eat it up.
3. Use superlatives. They are the best, and there are a lot to choose from: "state of the art," "unprecedented," "cleanest," "cutting-edge" and my personal fave, "most sustainable." Sure, some superlatives have legal definitions, so you could end up having to explain yourself to competitors or regulators. But most such challenges take time to resolve — years, in some cases — and often the only "penalty" is that the offending company must change its labeling or end a marketing campaign. Nothing your PR team can’t handle, so there's basically no downside.
Never stop explaining to critics why they're just plain wrong.
4. Ignore the critics. The media, activists, your kids, etc. They don’t understand or appreciate what you and your company do and how hard you work to make the world a better place, so make sure your voice is the loudest one in the room. Never stop explaining to critics why they're just plain wrong.
5. Engage employees. Create a green team or employee resource group, and let them discuss important topics of concern. For example, how the company can make it easier for employees to recycle stuff. Show up occasionally to crow about how proud you are of them, and how employees are the company’s greatest asset. Throw a company-wide sustainability event every third week of April to underscore your commitment. Pro tip: Hand out reusable water bottles with the company logo so your people will know that you’re walking your talk.
6. Promote, promote, promote. Ensure that the money you spend marketing your sustainability initiative is at least as much as the cost of the initiative itself. Or, ideally, a lot more.
7. Use science. Intersperse such terms as "science-based," "nature-based" and "evidence-based" to burnish your credentials. Scientists are highly respected, so consider using photos of diverse individuals in lab coats.
8. Don't go it alone. There is a rich history of companies banding together to appear sustainable — the Global Climate Coalition, the International Climate Science Coalition and the Alliance to End Plastic Waste are noteworthy examples. If you get pushback about the sincerity of such collaborations, simply count the number of participating companies and add up their cumulative revenue to make it indisputable that you're part of an important, impactful, global collaboration.
9. Be creative. There’s no limit to the ways you can leverage your marketing wizardry. For example, if there’s not already an industry group to align with, create your own. Consider: the Partnership to Advance Sustainable Technologies (PAST). It could advocate for anything from enhanced oil drilling to new kinds of plastic packaging — or any of 101 other things. Sounds credible, right? I just made it up!
10. Plant trees. Lots of trees! More trees than you ever imagined! Then, calculate the equivalent number of cars those trees will be "taking off the road" to show you’ve done your homework. The best news: Once the trees are planted, you’re done! It’ll be up to the locals to make sure the trees don’t get harvested or burned to the ground. But you get all the credit.
11. Think local. Don’t worry much about the impacts your company has on those living just beyond your fence line or office complex. Help any aggrieved neighbors understand those impacts are simply the price of creating a better world — in other words: trade-offs. As a good-faith gesture, consider donating to a local food bank or theater troupe.
12. Be relentless. Remember that you must own the story, regardless of whatever facts (or alternative facts) others throw at you. Heed the classic line from the 1962 film "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance": "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Your job, essentially, is to become a legend.
Greenwashing is a complex thing, so don’t worry if you don’t get it completely right the first time. Keep at it! Wear your sustainability promises proudly. Never stop talking about them. Eventually, you’ll win.
Winning, after all, is what it’s all about.
Thanks for reading. You can find my past articles here. Also, I invite you to follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn, subscribe to my Monday morning newsletter, GreenBuzz, from which this was reprinted, and listen to GreenBiz 350, my weekly podcast, co-hosted with Heather Clancy.