With the UK Green Claims Code directive on the horizon and similar schemes set to roll out across Europe in the form of the European Commission’s Green Claims Directive (click here to read our essential guide), we are reaching a key turning point in the story of sustainability.
The new regulations are designed to fight back against greenwashing, where vague, distorted or dishonest claims about sustainability have harmed trust for consumers and B2B industries alike.
Moreover, greenwashing has turned sustainability from a core focus on reducing environmental impact, to little more than marketing buzz in the eyes of many.
What we say, and how we say it, matters.
Take the word ‘sustainable’ when describing a product or service, one of many examples. The term on its own doesn’t mean anything without context or specifics. As such, the term – when used in isolation – is best avoided. Looking further afield to the sustainability lexicon, any phrasing that could be misleading, ambiguous or vague, must go.
One important element of this is to switch how brands are thinking about their own ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) initiatives, to switch from a very narrow and specific view of their activities to a wider holistic whole.
For brands operating their marketing in-house, this can be a particularly tricky change to navigate, so let’s explore some terms to avoid, and the alternatives that can be used instead.
Avoid ‘Eco-friendly’ or ‘Environmentally Friendly’:
The term ‘Eco-friendly’ should be phased out of use, as it implies that a product or service has no harmful impact on the environment. All products and services use resources from the environment in one form or another and being ultimately sustainable means reducing our use of resources in the first place.
So, how do we address this? Marketers could use terms such as ‘environmentally conscious’ or ‘eco-conscious’ to indicate that the product has been designed with sustainable principles in mind, rather than making direct reference to environmental performance. In this case, we are switching from impact to intent; letting how the product was designed tell its environmental story.
Skip ‘Sustainable’ or ‘100% Sustainable’:
While ‘Sustainable’ is a desirable label, we are now over-saturated, and it can be misleading if not substantiated with proper evidence. As a standalone phrase, it’s too ambiguous. It doesn’t mean anything on its own.
- Sustainable in comparison to what?
- Sustainable in its production, or its design?
- Are the materials sustainable, or are the production techniques? How do we know?
- Sustainable through its lifespan or post-use recovery?
The first priority would be to add more detail to the phrase, to address these potential questions. Alternatively, brands and marketers can again switch to intent, with phrases like ‘designed for circularity’ or ‘supporting sustainable initiatives’, to convey their commitment to reducing environmental impact.
Avoid ‘All-Natural’ or ‘Chemical-Free’:
While common in the personal care and cosmetics industries, the term ‘All-Natural’ can be deceptive and would fall under scrutiny. Everything, including chemicals that are synthesised, is made of natural chemical elements.
Additionally, some chemical substances are safe and necessary for certain products. An alternative is to specify the natural ingredients used in a product or mention it as ‘Free from harmful chemicals’ or even better, specify the particular chemicals that a formulation is free from, such as ‘SLS free’ in, for example, soap and bodywash bases.
Consider carefully ‘Biodegradable’ or ‘Compostable’:
Although a rapidly growing type of sustainably-minded design, the terms ‘compostable’ and ‘biodegradable’ must be used with care.
Using these terms may lead consumers to believe that the product will easily break down in any environment, where the reality is that they are tested in certain environments, with the accreditation to match.
To maintain transparency, brands can indicate the specific conditions required for biodegradation or composting, or use labels like ‘biodegradable in soil’ or ‘compostable in industrial facilities.’
Avoid ‘Carbon Neutral’ or ‘Zero Carbon’:
Achieving true carbon neutrality is an intricate process involving offsetting carbon emissions, and full end-to-end data over an extended period of time. While great strides are being made in this direction, very few businesses can currently claim this to be true – although this will change.
Instead, businesses can use ‘Reduced Carbon Footprint’ as long as it accompanies the relevant data, and information on the company’s emission reduction efforts. Once again, data is absolutely crucial.
Apply caution with ‘Recyclable’ or ‘100% Recycled’:
These terms are today commonly used in the print and packaging industries, as well as many others, but must be handled with care. As the packaging industry knows all too well, recycling streams are not all created equal.
To avoid potential confusion, marketers should clarify whether the product is universally recyclable in existing waste streams, or if recycling facilities exist only in certain regions.
Adding further framing around recycled content, such as defining the quantity of material ‘Made using 30% recycled materials’ is a more specific, evidence-based claim.
Avoid ‘Green’ or ‘Environmentally Certified’:
One of the most oversaturated terms, ‘Green’ is too ambiguous to be of use to brands today and may fall foul of incoming legislation when used in marketing. For many, it’s the word equivalent of sustainability stock images, which we’re all too used to seeing.
The term is vague and subjective, as it doesn’t have an agreed consensus on meaning. ‘Environmentally Certified’ is a similar case and does not provide consumers with the information they need to make an informed decision.
Instead, businesses can seek and mention specific environmental certifications that their products or practices have attained and communicate these clearly.
Avoid ‘Renewable Energy’ or ‘Clean Energy’:
When claiming the use of renewable energy in external communications, businesses must avoid ambiguity by specifying the sources and the percentage utilised. Examples such as ‘Operations powered by 100% wind energy’ or ‘Solar-powered production’ provide more clarity. Once again, it’s about being clear, specific and transparent.
In closing, brands must be more careful with specific wording and phrasing that pertains to environmental performance. Understanding and adhering to the Green Claims Code and Green Claims Directive not only protects consumers from deceptive practices, but also fosters genuine efforts toward sustainability.
Why not explore the benefits of working with a proven communications partner? At PHD Marketing, we stay one step ahead of legislation to support our clients in print, packaging, life sciences, technology and beyond, with communications services that are honest, eye-catching and engaging.
Looking to find your brand voice in a changing market? Trust the PHD team to help.
Get in touch with our team today at [email protected].