“It is no longer enough to just add a ‘green’ spin to your press release or marketing. Having knowledge of environmental related issues and processes, and the verifiable evidence to back up your environmental claim, is imperative,” asserted Angela Barter, a Sustainable Communication PR practitioner who spoke at the Event Greening Forum’s (EGF) 2017 Conference.
When companies fail to do this, they are guilty of ‘greenwashing’ – which is defined by Greenpeace as “the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service”.
The EGF is a non-profit organisation that promotes sustainability within the business events sector. Its conference was held at Valverde Eco Hotel on 27 July, and adopted the theme ‘Sustainability: the business case’. Barter’s talk unpacked the often ignored risks that greenwashing poses to a business.
Barter explained that, although legal protection for greenwashing does not currently exist in South Africa, legal protection does exist for unfair, deceptive and misleading claims, by words or implications, under Section 41 of the Consumer Protection Act and section 48 and 34 of the Foodstuff, Cosmetics and Disinfectant Act.
She added that Section G of the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa also requires that environmental claims are accurate and backed up by recognised scientific standards and principles.
This means that companies that “green sheen” their communications not only risk reputational damage when exposed, but could also face legal and financial consequences.
As sustainability becomes increasingly fashionable, the prevalence of greenwashing appears to be on the rise. “It is sometimes not out of malice, but instead due to inexperience or lack of understanding of environmental issues and technical processes,” added Barter. “However, as awareness of greenwashing grows, companies and consumer watch dogs will be on the lookout and ignorance will no longer be an excuse.” The onus will be on the company to understand the claims they wish to make about themselves or their products.
Greg McManus, the Chairman of the EGF, says that claiming an event is green in the pre-event marketing is one of the worst examples of greenwashing in the events industry. “Establishing whether an event is green can only take place after the work has been done – or once the extent of the impacts and measures to avoid and minimise them has happened,” he explains. “The tendency of some to proclaim an event as green or responsible before it has even started is short-sighted and misleading, and is harming the sustainability cause in South Africa more than we perhaps want to acknowledge.”
McManus and Barter both agree that there is great value in communicating your company or event’s green goals and achievements. However, care must be taken that all communication is factually accurate and can be reliably proven.
“The company has to ‘walk the talk’, keep its promises and ensure every environmental claim is true – and that it benefits both planet and people,” added Barter.