Article by Centre for Sustainable Fashion | Monica Buchan-Ng | 01.20.2022

Part 1 | How to talk about sustainability: a guide for brand communications

When you’re trying to tell the story of your brand to the rest of the world, a question that often emerges is –what’s the best way to approach communicating sustainability practices and values?  With the growing risk of greenwashing accusations, many brands struggle to confidently communicate their sustainability achievements externally. Be that marketing or PR specialists, or emerging designers where often one small team (or even one person) manages everything from social media to supply chain.  

We know all too well that sustainability can be a difficult topic to navigate. Companies are developing increasingly ambitious sustainability initiatives, commitments or strategies. But on the other hand, citizens all over the world are demanding more of brands and businesses. A sustainability initiative with a positive internal response may not resonate in the same way with the general public. For example, switching to 50% sustainably sourced materials can be a huge challenge internally, but in the face of the climate crisis? It just doesn’t seem like enough.  

Sustainability communications aren’t just about avoiding accusations of greenwashing, or mitigating risk. There’s also an opportunity in which to use  growing public awareness as a tool for self-reflection, and to learn from environmental criticisms of fashion – whether directed at your company, or the wider industry. In order to find this balance, a great reference tool is the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA): Guidance on Environmental Claims on Goods and Services. This is a guide principally designed to help companies understand their obligations under UK consumer protection laws, and aims to give confidence to those who want to make sustainability claims in relation to their business, products or services. In doing so, it can help companies to mitigate any greenwashing risks in their communications.   

What is greenwashing? 

Greenwashing is a marketing strategy or brand communications that “make false or misleading claims about a company’s environmental practices and products”1 and to “create a favourable company image positive messages are communicated selectively, without the full disclosure of related issues”2 In essence, greenwashing takes advantage of our collective environmental awareness to make a brand or product seem more sustainable – and therefore more desirable – than it really is.  

 What is an environmental claim? 

According to the CMA, environmental claims are those “which suggest that a product, service, process, brand or business is better for the environment”3 – including claims to “create the impression” that products have a positive or neutral environmental impact; or are less damaging (lower-impact) than previous versions, or are less damaging than competing products.  

The CMA guidance defines genuine claims are those that “properly describe the impact of the product, service, process, brand or business, and do not hide or misrepresent crucial information”, while those that are misleading “occur where a business makes claims about its products, services, processes, brands or its operations as a whole, or omits or hides information, to give the impression they are less harmful or more beneficial to the environment than they really are.” 

To avoid making misleading claims, the CMA offer six guiding principles: 

a) claims must be truthful and accurate   b) claims must be clear and unambiguous   c) claims must not omit or hide important relevant information   d) comparisons must be fair and meaningful  e) claims must consider the full life cycle of the product or service   f) claims must be substantiated  

These principles can help brand communicators to avoid greenwashing – but they also offer an opportunity for internal reflection. Are your sustainability practices substantial enough to talk about externally? What level of transparency are you comfortable with – are you happy to share your journey, fails and wins alike? And can you use external communications as a motivator to drive improvement in the brand’s sustainability practice? 

For Part 2 of this series, we will explore the CMA principles and re-frame them as a series of critical questions for you to use when developing brand communications.