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How to spotlight sustainability without “greenwashing”

Here are four principles to share your eco-friendly initiatives with authenticity and transparency.

How to spotlight sustainability without “greenwashing”
[Source photo: Andriy Onufriyenko]

Brands are under more pressure than ever to adopt sustainable initiatives and produce eco-friendly products, even amid increased reputational hurdles around “greenwashing.”

One McKinsey study found a significant correlation between sustainability claims on product packaging and consumer spending. But yet Deloitte found that 65% of people expect CEOs to do more to make progress on environmental issues.

Sustainability is one of the few social issues where people expect companies to take action. Mission North’s inaugural Brand Expectations Index, which surveyed 1,000 U.S. adults, found that only 39% of respondents expect companies to take public stances, and even fewer (38%) demand bold actions on broader social issues. But sustainability stands out as an exception. Sixty percent of respondents expect businesses to take meaningful strides to become sustainable.

Even so, the stakes are high for getting this messaging right. Many organizations are facing increased scrutiny from audiences on a range of issues, sustainability among them. Inauthentic messaging can lead to accusations of greenwashing, with serious reputational and legal risks.

Nike faced a class-action lawsuit over claims its products were falsely marketed as environmentally friendly. In March, a Dutch court ruled that Australian airline KLM misled customers with its environmental claims. And even Octavia Spencer couldn’t save Apple from greenwashing backlash after its Mother Nature video.

Organizations must have a highly intentional communications strategy behind their sustainability messaging in such a fraught landscape. These four principles should serve as the starting place:


Addressing environmental challenges is a long game. Brands should lean into a transparent view of what they are on track to achieve in realistic terms and why it matters. This involves an honest look at where you are with your sustainability progress and what work still needs to be done. Avoid rose-tinting your messaging with wiggle words or hyperbole.

Skeptical audiences require nuanced messaging, so it’s important to tailor your communications strategy to specific audiences, be it investors, consumers, partners, or customers. For example, general consumers may not be deeply versed in sustainability metrics or technical jargon. They’ll react best to simple, engaging language that resonates with everyday concerns. On the other hand, investors will want to know the financial benefits of sustainability efforts, such as cost savings from energy efficiency initiatives, and how they contribute to a brand’s long-term resilience and competitiveness.


Use facts and numbers to build trust with your customers, in all communications. Don’t amplify sustainability progress or environmental impact that isn’t measurable—it’s just not worth it. Tangible proof points can combat skepticism and help your company stand out from the greenwashing. For example, IKEA’s annual Sustainability and Climate Reports track hard metrics like reduction in climate footprint, renewable electricity progress, and reductions in plastic packaging. The company also lists its 2030 sustainable energy goals and the steps it’s taking to get there.

It’s also important to consider that audiences are especially skeptical right now. Before you go out with sustainability claims, look at them with fresh, even cynical eyes. Is this authentic and defensible? Is it only telling half the story?


While strategically positioned stunts can be delightful, they can also destroy a reputation. For one thing, stunts invite scrutiny—especially in today’s cynical media environment. When reputation and credibility are under heightened scrutiny, avoid grandstanding, overpromising, or emotional displays, or you’re courting a snarky headline.

If you’re going to go big with a stunt or major announcement, be prepared to go really big. Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard set the bar incredibly high when he gave the company away and devoted the profits to fighting climate change. If your stunt isn’t built around something tangible and impactful, you’re better off with subtlety.


Audiences want to hear from brands about meaningful sustainability progress. This makes it so tempting to boast about eco-friendly products or initiatives even before meaningful progress has been made. Getting this right is a tricky balance that involves meeting audience expectations without over-promising. By prioritizing transparency, leaning on authentic validators, and avoiding over-the-top campaigns, companies can break through to even the most skeptical audiences. For the brands that do this well, there’s a valuable opportunity to build trust and engage audiences over the long term.

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Tyler Perry is co-CEO of Mission North. More