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3 practical ways to prioritize sustainability and avoid greenwashing

Brands are grappling with how to implement truly sustainable practices amid greenwashing, legal hurdles, and fear-driven silence. These strategies can help.

3 practical ways to prioritize sustainability and avoid greenwashing
[Source photo: Getty Images]

Recent reports paint a worrying picture of our planet’s future, with environmental concerns dominating both short- and long-term risks.

But navigating a path to sustainability is fraught with challenges, misinformation, and ethical dilemmas. The deluge of greenwashing, greenhushing, and greenshifting makes it nearly impossible for consumers to decipher the brands that are authentically prioritizing sustainability. We’ve all been there . . . standing in an aisle of a local grocery store, faced with a wall of products claiming to be “green,” “eco-friendly,” or “sustainable.”

A recent Bain & Co. report found only 28% of consumers trust large corporations to create genuinely sustainable products. With confidence that low, brands need to work harder to present people with credible choices. Despite the often good intent, there are still significant obstacles.


We know green claims are a major selling point, and there’s profit to be made from environmental credentials. However, the U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority found that 40% of online green claims could mislead consumers, while the European Commission reported a staggering 53% of environmental claims in the EU were misleading. These practices aren’t just deceptive but also seed distrust, making it increasingly challenging to identify genuinely sustainable brands.


Consumers understand that sustainability is a journey, and most would rather join the brands they love for the ride than be dismissed with denials and PR-generated “word soup.” Lego provided a strong example of this at the end of last year. The world’s biggest toy manufacturer revealed that its ambitious goal to remove oil-based materials from its products by 2030 had hit a brick wall. The company determined that the transition to recycled plastic would result in greater carbon emissions, so it was dropped.

Lego understood that while embracing openness can seem daunting for brands, it’s a crucial step in building trust and credibility. The brand acknowledged it didn’t have all the answers. It placed progress over perfection.

Volkswagen showed how powerful honesty can be, too. Following its “Dieselgate” emissions scandal, where a culture of prioritizing results came above everything else, Volkswagen turned its fortunes around. It became an advocate for ambitious pollution standards. It embarked on a corporate cultural shift toward an ethical, collaborative, and purpose-driven brand that could learn from its mistakes.

There’s an ongoing attempt by lawmakers to introduce structure and reduce misinformation. The EU Green Claims Directive, adopted in February of this year, aims to protect consumers from misleading claims. It states companies must “substantiate the voluntary green claims they make in business-to-consumer commercial practices.” They now need to submit evidence and get approval from appointed verifiers. The Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides, meanwhile, have fewer teeth but are moving in the right direction.

The complexities of legal change mean that communicating green efforts and remaining compliant require careful attention. All companies must carefully navigate a legal maze to successfully convey their efforts and guard against the very real risk of being accused of misleading consumers.

And the risk is real. Household names such as Air FrancePersil, and Oatly have all fallen foul of the Advertising Standards Authority for breaching the Green Claims Code in the U.K., and had their ad campaigns banned. The reputational damage this causes can discourage companies from communicating confidently about their sustainability activities, leaving consumers in the dark.


Implanting sustainability into strategy isn’t just a response to societal pressures or consumer demands; it’s a proactive measure to navigate the shifting regulatory environment. Keeping abreast of these regulations demonstrates that a brand will be able to adapt its practices, avoiding penalties or reputational damage associated with noncompliance.

It’s also true that sustainability sells—demonstrating an understanding of the legal landscape will make brands more attractive to stakeholders, including consumers, investors, and talent.


The fear of legal repercussions and the damage of being accused of greenwashing has led directly to an increase in greenhushing—the silent strategy being adopted by many companies to mitigate the risk of getting their comms efforts wrong, even if they’re entirely genuine.

A survey by emission-reduction specialists South Pole highlighted that one in four companies has set science-based emission reduction targets but chooses not to publicize them. Despite being an attempt to avoid the pitfalls of greenwashing, this contributes to a lack of transparency in the sustainability space, leaving consumers wondering who they can really trust.


Don’t look at sustainability as a compliance task. According to a new report by IBM, organizations can greatly enhance business value by integrating sustainability deeply into all aspects of operations.

When sustainability is integrated throughout an organization, it becomes part of the story told to stakeholders. This authenticity builds trust and credibility, making communication more effective. Additionally, a culture that values sustainability promotes transparency and accountability, allowing companies to address challenges openly and demonstrate their commitment to environmental and social responsibility.

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Suzy Shelley is the sustainability and materials lead at brand design agency Pearlfisher. More