Decarbonising media: how to turn greenwashing into greenworking

June Cheung, JAPAC MD of Scope3, offers three ways in which the ad industry and brands can turn greenwashing into greenworking.

As we move towards 2023, there’s much greater awareness around the role of the ad industry in helping to slow-down climate change. Sustainability is one of the six key focus areas of IAB Australia for next year and the topic has also shot up the priority list for most responsible brands and agencies.

The increasing focus on decarbonising media and advertising is a positive for both our industry and our planet. However, with awareness comes scrutiny – and scrutiny comes with its own inherent risks.

The most prominent risk to date has been greenwashing (defined by Investopedia as “making an unsubstantiated claim to deceive consumers into believing that a company’s products are environmentally friendly or have a greater positive environmental impact than they actually do”.)

There have been several recent examples of how large global brands have let themselves down with false or inflated sustainability claims. For example, HSBC recently fell afoul of the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) with an outdoor advertising campaign about its climate-friendly initiatives. Following complaints, the ASA banned the ads, ruling that they were misleading as they failed to acknowledge HSBC’s own contribution to emissions.

Cases like this make people understandably nervous. I know from conversations on the ground that there is a real fear that if brands and agencies share what they’re doing to achieve a more sustainable advertising ecosystem, it could open them up to accusations of greenwashing if they are found wanting.

But, the fear of backlash has given rise to a bigger risk, “green hushing”: where companies are choosing not to publicise their carbon initiatives. This phenomenon was discussed at length at the recent COP27 conference, where there was significantly less promotion of sustainability projects by companies attended.

Staying quiet will hinder progress if we want to achieve net zero. If we don’t share our learnings we won’t accelerate as fast. 2030, the recognised deadline to show progress toward slowing climate change, is fast approaching.

So how can we turn greenwashing into greenworking? These are my thoughts.

1. Be genuine when sharing your greenworking story

At the heart of many greenwashing claims are the basic consumer laws of misleading and deceptive conduct and false and misleading representations. Evaluate your story from the average consumer perspective. What is the overall impression they will get? Be honest and truthful, detail the specific part of the process or product you are referring to, and use language that people can understand.

In the case of HSBC they weren’t genuine. They made it seem as though they were 100% green, but they didn’t speak about their portfolio investment in fossil fuel companies.

2. Be factual and transparent

There’s nowhere to hide. Advertisers need to acknowledge exactly where they are on their journey. So, a soft drink company could say something like, ‘we’re being greener with recycled plastic bottles, and this is how we’re tracking, and these are other areas of work where we need to do better. Please go to our sustainability website to see where we’re at.’

Then consumers who want to know more can acknowledge that the soft drinks company isn’t perfect, but they are providing what information they can. Importantly, this means including the good data as well as the bad data. Remember, accusations of greenwashing arise from only talking about the good stuff and not acknowledging the bad stuff.

It’s also important to be careful about making statements of what you will do in future. If there weren’t reasonable grounds for making the statement at the time, the ACCC could consider it misleading. This includes implying credentials that don’t (yet) exist, such as calling your business the “100% Clean Energy Co” but producing energy from unclean sources.

3. Back up your claim

State clearly how your progress was measured and what the third-party audit was. We need credible sources of measurement, both for determining initial carbon emissions as well as their reduction.

Advertisers can measure their own emissions and progress in a number of ways, from analysing the emissions emitted during the creation of the ad through to emissions emitted as a result of media buying. The most important thing is to analyse and then to act on the results by driving reduction in carbon emissions.

Excitingly, it can be easy to make progress once an issue has been identified. Scope3 founder Brian O’Kelley recently proved via an interaction on LinkedIn that carbon reduction can be done in a matter of days, rather than years for our industry (read the interaction in the comments where genuinely meaningful change occurs).

As the industry embarks on the journey of decarbonisation, I hope that our industry will be able to avoid the extremes of greenwashing and green hushing and instead share our greenworking stories, our progress and our challenges so we can learn from each other and accelerate towards achieving our net zero goals.

For those interested to dive into the subject matter further the AANA recently published their Environmental Claims Code Discussion Paper here.

June Cheung, head of JAPAC at Scope3

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