All mouth, no trousers – marketing sustainability strategies

Every day brings a tsunami of press releases from PR companies trumpeting about the green triumphs of their clients. Tom Idle dons a life jacket, wades in, and tries to locate the truth among all the greenwash

James Wright tells me a story. “A journalist friend once told me that a PR agency had sent him a press release about how a ferry company had become environmentally friendly. He phoned the agency and said, ‘I don’t get your press release’.

“They said, ‘What do you mean, you don’t get it. Why?’ To which the journalist replied, ‘Well, it says in the press release your ferry company is environmentally friendly. But what exactly is the company doing differently now?’

“‘Oh, nothing’, came the reply. ‘It’s just environmentally friendly to go by ferry’. ‘So you aren’t doing anything different?’ ‘No, it’s just a market reposition because it’s more green than flying’.

“We’re talking about a major ferry company and a major PR agency here,” says James.

Unfortunately, James’s story is not isolated. As editor of Sustainable Business, I receive a daily bombardment of press releases, each peddling the wares of companies that have a new claim to environmental greatness. Nine times out of ten the message coming through is wildly exaggerated.

Of course, there is a great enthusiasm for the business world to adopt environmentally sound principles, and you could argue that they have every right to use their sustainability ambitions as a market differentiator. But what happens when a multi-million pound marketing campaign is based on those ambitions alone? All too often this is the case, and we find ourselves in a world tainted with greenwash. This makes it increasingly hard for consumers to spot the difference between organisations being responsible and those sending out the wrong signals – regardless of their good intentions.

Our storyteller, James Wright, heads up the corporate social responsibility division at Trimedia, one of Europe’s largest PR agencies – with 530 staff, 30 offices in Europe and operations across the world. He admits there are lots of shades of grey in this area and he should know, having spent five of his nine years in PR specialising in sustainability and environmental communications.

What he has discovered in that time is practitioners in the marketing and public relations sector could certainly improve their performance. Tired of witnessing people “sending out communications on environmental issues that they simply hadn’t grasped,” he set about doing something about it.

The fruit of his labour is the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) Best Practice Guidelines for Environmental Sustainability Communications. It was launched earlier this year to address some of his concerns about the state of play in the sector. “I spoke to an environmental editor at a national [newspaper] who told me he was receiving 200 press releases a day, of which 180 he described as something in the region of greenwash,” he says.

“The public relations industry has, ironically, struggled with its own credibility at times, so this is something I felt we needed to look at. Last summer I went to the CIPR and explained the scenario.

“I felt it would be prudent of us to put into place some sort of code of practice that helped practitioners to communicate environmental sustainability in a much better way.”

Given how environmental issues have erupted onto the national agenda in the past five years, you could argue that greenwash – of which the CIPR Guidelines’ definition is “a term used to describe the actions of a company…which promotes positive environmental practices, whilst acting in a way that…does not adhere to the claim” – was inevitable. Terms like sustainability, CSR, and greenwash are relatively new to our everyday vocabularies. This is new ground – green marketing did not exist three years ago.

James pulled together a panel of people from across the PR and corporate worlds, as well as a national journalist, to kick around some ideas of what the guidelines should achieve. “We defined what greenwashing is and looked at the causes of it so people could recognise it in their own communications,” he says, rather proudly.

“Enthusiasm is a good example. People are very proud about the companies they work for so they want to tell people how fantastic it is and when they do that sometimes they overstate or blur aspirations rather than talk about actions.”

It is in this blurring of aspirations that most greenwash occurs. It is something James refers to as diversion greenwash, where a business’s marketing focus is centred on a small part of its operation, rather than examining the whole. To offer a rather simplistic and extreme example: imagine a car manufacturer that wants to tell the world about the recyclability of the windscreen wipers on its latest model of high- performance, gas-guzzling cars. It is an interesting story, but, greenwashed with descriptions of how the carmakers are engaging with the sustainability agenda, it does not stand up.

The guidelines concentrate a lot on the need for practitioners to back up environmental claims. “It’s not good enough to have a take-our-word-for-it approach – ‘We’ve reduced our emissions by 40%, by our own calculations’ – People want to see some kind of methodology being used,” adds James.

I am impressed with the guidelines. Any practical help offered in the name of performance improvement, especially in this area, should be warmly welcomed. But, as I put to James, surely this type of best practice is applicable across the board. Backing up statistics with verification is just good PR activity, right?

“You might say that it’s easier to do it in other areas, because it’s not as high profile,” he replies. “In consumer PR, for instance, people overstate and over enthuse about certain products.

“But sustainability is a very serious and high- profile issue. It’s a political hot potato. There’s an enormous amount of pressure from government, NGOs and society to ensure that you are being open and transparent in talking about these issues.”

One company that has handled this pressure extremely well is BT. The telecoms group has offered transparency for years, setting its first CO2 emissions reduction target back in 1992 and regularly topping the rankings for sustainability reporting. In fact, this year was the seventh in a row that BT has topped the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for its sector. As part of this effort, greenwashing has never come into the equation, according to Emma Williams, who manages CSR marketing for the company. Have you ever been tempted, I ask her. “I can honestly say no,” she says resolutely. “It comes down to the values of the company.”

Emma, who played a role in developing the CIPR Guidelines with James, has been with BT for the past five years. Much of her communications strategy today is not just about achieving reputational benefits for the company, she says. “It’s a value thing, about what people believe in and hold dear.”

“I may not get angered when I see a mascara advert and it’s obvious the model has got fake eyelashes. But I’m going to get really angry when I see a car advert or something that misleads consumers.”

But are both types of advertisement not misleading for consumers at the end of the day? “They are,” she says. “But I think it’s about how we feel that deception is impacting on the rest of society.

“False eyelashes do have an impact along the chain. But compared to climate change,

environmental degradation and loss of habitat, it’s a completely different agenda.”

BT started on their sustainability communication journey very early. But that transparency and accountability, which has won them plenty of friends – not only among consumers, but also across the corporate world – has not always translated into large and expensive marketing campaigns. In fact, they have been shy at times to shout about their achievements. For very good reason, says Emma. “A lot of companies have rushed out there with green communication and it’s a little bit tacked onto the end of the marketing chain. What they haven’t done is looked at the actual product itself and what it’s impacts are. Because they’ve printed the user guide on recycled paper, for instance, suddenly they are shouting about it.”

Emma goes on to tell me the otter story. Two pieces of BT-owned land were intersected by a busy road that was proving fatal for otters that needed to cross between the two areas during breeding season. So, BT built a tunnel for the otters to have safe passage across the road. A PR dream, you would think. But Emma and her team didn’t really do anything with it. Of course, it was picked up by the local press and became a big story. “We didn’t build the tunnel to get the PR,” she says. “We did it because of our relationship with the community.” She puts the reluctance to boast down to “British reserve”.

But this reserve has bought BT many admirers. “People in industry see BT as a leading light in this area,” says James. “I talk to different organisations every day and they always say ‘we need to be like BT’.”

The marketers and public relations people I’ve met – James and Emma among them – seem very conscious of their profession’s credibility, or lack of. One particular practitioner told me recently that when people ask, she no longer tells them she works in PR, because of the stigma attached to it. Perhaps that explains the emergence of the new guidance and a desire to improve performance.

Emma has been proactive to this end. Her tool is her Guide To Sustainable Marketing, a document she produced for CSR Europe, a European network for CSR professionals. It examines ways in which marketing practices can be more sustainable. “There is advice on very practical things, like what to tell your printer to minimise the impacts of producing a user guide, for example. Basically, all the nitty-gritty things that marketing people don’t have time to get their head around.”

“I’ve done so many campaigns in my career where we didn’t even consider the environmental impact,” admits James. No longer should the likes of BT give away prizes that involve flying people around the world. And as for promotional items – “a fluffy gnome or stupid thing I’m going to throw straight in the bin”, as Emma puts – they are a thing of the past.

“One fluffy gnome is nothing. But multiply that by 165,000 people – that’s a very big impact.”

So, marketing strategies are changing. Of course, the media will continue to face some form of greenwash, just as consumer magazines continue to airbrush photos of women within their pages, and mascara companies insist their models wear false eyelashes. But, as James says, “greenwashing is harder to do now”.

“This is where governance will come into play,” adds Emma. “Things like having your annual reports accredited.”

The PR industry needs to change too, to become more responsible for overstatements and enthusiasm that so often leads to greenwashing.

“Businesses are spending a lot of money on different programmes, and senior people are wanting to see some PR out of it. But sometimes you need to say to them that we can do the communications once everything is in place, and we have the proof that targets have been hit,” says James.

Green marketing is getting harder and, as the CSR agenda matures, it seems that business will have no option but to get creative if they want to gain the marketing edge. As Emma puts it: “Any fool can go and do what they’ve done for the past ten years. But to actually find creative ways of communicating things, while minimising impacts along the way, that’s really exciting. I will get out of bed to do that.”

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie