Greenwashing concerns: Marketing professionals warn of sustainability knowledge gap
The majority of marketing professionals feel they need to be braver and clearer in how they communicate sustainability to avoid greenwashing, but very few within the industry feel they have the capacity or knowledge to do so.
The World Federation of Advertisers, which represents 90% of global marketing spend, has today (24 April) published the findings of a global survey of the marketing industry. Developed in partnership with Kantar’s Sustainable Transformation Practice, more than 900 senior client-side marketers were surveyed across 48 countries.
The survey found that the marketing profession is lagging behind other areas of the business when it comes to understanding and embracing the broad agenda of sustainability. In total, 39% of respondents claimed they had only just started out on their sustainability journeys.
There is an understanding within the industry that corporate sustainability strategies need to be more ambitious, with 90% claiming so and a further 94% stating that marketers need to act more bravely and experiment to drive transformative change. Indeed, 43% of companies have now added sustainability as a KPI for marketing departments, up from 26% in 2021.
Marketing is one of the key departments when it comes to negating the risks of greenwashing and many firms have published marketing and comms programmes that have been accused of twisting the truth over green claims.
The industry realises that, in spite of the risks of greenwashing, companies need to be braver and smarter as to how they communicate their sustainability efforts, with 82% calling for more ambition. Additionally, 41% of brands now believe they have a sustainability story and strategy that they are “proud” to share, up from 25% in 2021.
There is, however, a widening capability gap emerging for marketing professionals. A perpetual knowledge gap of sustainability topics has increased within the industry, cited by 35% in 2023, compared to 20% in 2021. One of the issues in this regard is that sustainability no longer fits into one sole function, and a lack of metrics, definitions and complex jargon all contribute to the knowledge gap.
Key challenges highlighted by the profession include a lack of internal resources (35%), a knowledge and skills gap (35%), organisational mindset where sustainability is viewed as a cost (32%), and a lack of transparency in measurement (30%).
WFA’s chief executive Stephan Loerke said: “Marketers are finally starting to grasp the scale of the sustainability challenge, particularly the climate crisis. We have reached the point where the status quo is no longer an option.
“Radical transformation is essential. We passionately believe that marketers are uniquely placed to drive the change we need on account of their unique creativity, innovation and communication skillset. The Sustainable Marketing 2030 initiative focuses on how marketers can drive growth while embracing the sustainability agenda.”
The survey also found that 54% of marketers agreed that consumers need more education about sustainable choices and actions and that brands are well-positioned to help.
According to a survey conducted by the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) in 2021, half (49%) of UK-based marketing professionals communicating the sustainability ambitions and actions of companies are worried their work may be perceived as greenwashing, amid increased consumer demand for – and scrutiny of – environmental claims.
while more than half of the 210 respondents recognised environmental sustainability as a business priority and an existential risk (51%), there was confusion about how to communicate targets and initiatives externally. Half of the respondents said they fear their company or client being accused of greenwashing by consumers if they publish communications leading on sustainability. A key problem is the fact that 40% of marketers admit to not having qualifications relating to communicating sustainability.
At the start of the year, the UK’s competition watchdog confirmed it would investigate the environmental claims made about fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) including food, drink and toiletries, as it continues its work on greenwashing.
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) will assess claims made online and in-store, including on-pack labelling and other marketing. Claims will be assessed against the Authority’s ‘Green Claims Code’ – a set of 13 guidelines for businesses and brands with consumer-facing products and services. Issues covered by the code include ensuring the accuracy and clarity of claims; not omitting important information and enabling ‘fair and meaningful’ comparison.
A sweep of corporate websites by the CMA found that four in ten are providing misleading information on environmental issues. A similar study from the Changing Markets Foundation found that 60% of the environmental claims of large British and European fashion brands could be classed as “unsubstantiated” and “misleading”. The CMA recently spoke to edie about how corporates can avoid falling foul of greenwashing. Read that interview here.
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There needs to be serious change in corporate culture to prioritize training all employees, but especially marketing departments, on what greenwashing is and how to communicate on sustainability topics in a digestible, truthful way.