​Beyond greenwashing: Why brands need to get their house in order first

Craig Flanders

  • CEO, Spinach
Craig Flanders is the CEO of Spinach, a full service, truly integrated agency with capabilities in advertising, strategic planning, digital, data and media.

At the height of the seemingly never-ending pandemic, UK based Pooj Morjaria launched the website, ‘Did they help?’ Using a points system, the site ranks businesses and individuals for their performance in dealing with issues ranging from Covid to Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ rights, pumping out a list of ‘zeroes’ and ‘heroes’.

Right now, Elon Musk and Donald Trump are tied as the top ‘zeroes’ for their response to Covid while J.K. Rowling is leading the charge for the worst performance on LGBTQ rights.

At the heart of the ranking system is a question being raised in more meetings with clients than ever before: How does our brand help?

Environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) is a hot topic for brands right now. And there are certainly plenty of issues brands want to help with from climate change to Covid. I’m all for brands rolling up their sleeves to lend a hand. But there’s one piece of advice I give to clients keen to go down this path: Get your own house in order first.

One of the dangers of pushing the boat out on topical causes is getting caught not practicing what you preach. Sustainability is a great example. Don’t go all gung-ho talking up your reduction on plastic packaging when behind the scenes you’re doing things that are far worse for the environment.

While greenwashing is an abhorrent practice, there’s another issue at play for brands looking to jump on the issues bandwagon.

In our business, products give to brands more than brands give to products. What I mean by that is your products need to walk the talk and deliver on what the brand claims. If your product or service isn’t truly helping, you will have a problem. Attempt a soft shoe shuffle around ESG claims that don’t quite stack up, you’ll be called out and damned.

The other important issue to keep your eye firmly fixed on is why your customers are buying your product or service in the first place. Take a brand like Kathmandu or Patagonia. Both are known for their commitment to the environment but you wouldn’t buy their jackets if they didn’t keep you warm, regardless of the added backstory.

Doing good has to be the discriminator between good brands and great brands because you’ll always get caught out if you’re trying to use do-gooding to wallpaper over a crap product.

Imagine getting sucked into the environmental credentials of Patagonia and then spending an arm and a leg on the brand’s puffer jackets only to go outside and freeze. You won’t buy another one and you’ll be telling everyone how crap they are.

If all the brands in your competitive set are producing goods and services to a high standard, how you behave can be the icing on top of the cake.

I’m not giving companies the green light to do bad. In my opinion, sustainability and environmental care are no longer nice-to haves. Much like inclusion and social responsibility, they should be baked into any business.

Instead, I’m talking about activities that go beyond the day-to-day of a business to embrace a cause. Think Gillette’s #MeToo campaign that has been universally panned. In many ways, Gillette would have been better off trying to make more sustainable razors than weighing into a fight that wasn’t the brand’s.

And before you say it, this isn’t about doing good in the eyes of latte-sipping lefties. This isn’t a political issue. It boils down to having your house in order because you can’t criticise something unless you’re 100 per cent certain you play no part in the problem.






Tags: sustainability, corporate social responsibility, brand strategy, customer engagement

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