How can sustainability help you create a brand that differentiates and avoids greenwashing?

We are often asked to provide our thoughts and reflections on the growing connection between sustainability and an organization’s reputation and brand. In a recent survey of CEOs (the largest of its kind) entitled “A New Era of Sustainability” and released by the United Nations Global Compact on sustainability, CEOs ranked “brand trust and reputation” as the top reason to take action on sustainability.   However, while many organizations realize the reputational and brand differentiation potential of taking meaningful steps towards sustainability, they are also increasingly (and justifiably) wary of public scrutiny and the accusation of “greenwashing.

The question is:

How can sustainability help you create a brand that differentiates and avoids greenwashing?

At Sustainable Brands, an annual gathering of sustainability and branding professionals that include global brands such as Coca-Cola and Nike, attendees left with two key insights:

  • “What we value as a society is changing – and the companies that respond will be the companies that win”
  • “Sustainability is (really) good for brands”

These insights make a compelling argument to tether your organization’s marketing strategy to sustainability. However, here are two of our own insights:

  • Offering a compelling promise to the market can only get you so far
  • There have been many organizations who have broken the trust of the market by not delivering on their promise, hence the label of greenwashing

As Olgivy states in their whitepaper, Green Marketing without the Greenwash: the handbook:

“Many marketers go wrong by assuming that a smallish story that already exists or a minor change already in the works will do. Usually it won’t. New messages with a couple of green buzzwords won’t work either…. sustainability is about driving substantial and authentic change.”

So taking all of this into account, how do you differentiate and avoid the greenwashing label?

Firstly, we believe that differentiated value comes from truly focusing on something your organization is passionate about and does extremely well, that the market actually needs, and that is different from the competition. Choosing to embark on a sustainability journey towards substantial and authentic change may be compelling to you and to the market in general, but pinpointing specific points of pain or need that your market has will make it even more compelling and different.  For example, differentiate yourself with your dedication and investment towards research into new innovations. However, this is not the complete story. Promising a value offering around sustainability gets the market interested, but it is the authenticity of every experience or touch-point that either builds or breaks down the confidence of the market. This is your brand. And, this is why transparency and consistency are critical to unlocking the value creation potential of sustainability.

A recent article about the death of green marketing also affirms this notion:

“Transparency has become the new lingua franca in sustainability — a demand for companies to account for and report their impacts, commitments, goals and progress. It’s at the company or brand level that this makes sense: Why offer a few good, eco-labeled products if the organization behind them is headed in the wrong direction? Transparency is a fundamental building block of a green economy. It can build trust in companies, and ward off claims of greenwashing.”

This does not mean that you have to be carbon neutral in a week, however; the market’s need for authenticity and transparency are around what your commitment is, and how you have mapped out your journey.

In practical terms this means visibly demonstrating your commitment to your sustainability journey with initiatives throughout the organization in areas that cover governance, culture, products, voice and operations. Sustainability-relevant change in each of these areas alone will yield benefits, e.g. cost savings, reduced attrition rates, recognition and award, new product ideas and so on, but it is the sum of all these parts powered by a strong guiding sustainability vision that will allow your business to realize the differentiation potential of a sustainability-powered brand and distinguish itself from the rest of crowd.


Pong Leung is a senior advisor with The Natural Step Canada. Margo Schulte Long is Director of Strategic Services with Incite Marketing.  The Natural Step and Incite often work together, helping organizations on their journey of sustainability leadership and market themselves while they are at it.   Find out more about The Natural Step Canada’s service offerings for business or contact us to organize a free webinar for your team. To receive quarterly communiqués on sustainable business topics from The Natural Step Canada, please click here.