More than words

With CSR commitments proving to withstand the recession - and in some cases being ramped up in response to a drive for cost efficiency - companies need to stay alert to the risks of greenwash when planning communications, writes Kate Sturley

In March this year, MPs on the Commons Environmental Audit Committee called for tougher standards on greenwash, which describes the process by which companies exaggerate the environmental credentials of their products or services. This follows a steady drip feed in recent years of high-profile claims dealt with by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) for brands including Shell, easyJet and Toyota. In fact, the ASA received more than 850 complaints between 2006 and 2008 relating to green claims made in UK advertising. An ASA review undertaken in 2008 suggests, perhaps reassuringly, that only a small percentage of complaints received represented actual infringements of advertising code. But it certainly demonstrates that individuals are ready to question corporate claims at every turn.

In response to this trend, last year the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) launched a set of Best Practice Guidelines for Environmental Sustainability Communications, developed in conjunction with Trimedia. These offer practical advice to businesses on achieving credible communications campaigns which are transparent and reflect action, not just words.

Particularly in the current economic climate, there is a risk that businesses might venture into greenwash territory in an effort to differentiate themselves in a particularly competitive marketplace. Building in a sanity check against guidelines like these from the CIPR will help ensure communications have a clear objective and a simple, jargon-free message.

But the messages we are all sending out as businesses are only one side of the story. The methods we use to deliver these messages, whether that be designing a piece of printed material, holding an event or setting up a photo opportunity, all carry with them their own potential to impact on the environment. It is crucial that organisations assess these potential impacts during the planning stage of any communications campaign too.

Trimedia describes this approach as assessing the Return on Environmental Investment (RoEI). Completely carbon-free communication is an impossibility. And sometimes relatively sizeable environmental impacts are necessary to deliver high-profile campaigns that bring about wider behaviour change.

But the key is to assess the likely impacts at the outset of any campaign and ensure those that cannot be reduced are justifiable in terms of project outcomes. The key stages of sustainable campaign planning are:
  • Does the ROEI stack up? Is it logical?
  • What steps can you take to reduce the impacts of individual activities?
  • How can the environmental impacts be measured and reported to ensure transparency?
  • Is carbon offsetting an option for any unavoidable impacts?
Trimedia has a series of campaign impact tools which its staff can use to help clients assess how a plan of activity rates in the following areas:
  • Event-related energy and resource use
  • Production of campaign materials
  • Media stunts and photo calls
  • Travel impacts including personnel/deliveries/events and food or product waste
Businesses approaching this for the first time will find that many of the major carbon offset providers can advise on this type of scoring mechanism. This is also undoubtedly an area that many environmental consultants are already being asked about and providing advice on too.

Trimedia has produced a guide for its staff and clients on planning carbon-efficient PR campaigns. This includes ideas and techniques which could help reduce the environmental impact of communication activities.

For example, setting up a photo stunt can often involve sourcing a range of props as well as travel for the people involved.

For one of our clients, ConstructionSkills, Trimedia created a series of photos, using Photoshop to remove iconic buildings or structures from local landscapes. This helped to support a news story about the importance of construction careers in the regions.

Another option is to work with materials that are already on location. In 2007, Trimedia worked with Defra to support its Act On CO2 public engagement campaign. The PR firm wanted to raise interest on the beaches during the summer and grab people's attention but without using excessive amounts of raw material or generating waste.

The solution was to use the material that was already on site in abundance - the sand. Using outline moulds that could be folded down and transported it created giant footprints at beaches around the English coastline to get people talking about the importance of reducing their carbon footprint.

These are just a couple of examples of how creative thinking can help to lower the impact of communications activity. But there are many more opportunities out there to design campaigns that stand out for all the right reasons. Trimedia is also committed to walking the walk by developing its own internal environmental management system using the IEMA Acorn Scheme framework.

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