Don’t let sustainability be your next crisis

About the author

Chris is a lecturer, media trainer, crisis communication consultant and coach. Her in-house roles have included the global position of Director of PR for Barclays. Chris leads the CIPR PR Diploma and Crisis Comms Diplomas. BA Hons, CAM, MCIPR

The CMA's Green Claims Code
The CMA's Green Claims Code

‘Don’t let sustainability be your next crisis’ was the theme of our April PR Academy Crisis Communication Hub webinar and it seemed we had hit on an issue that resonated with many. A string of high-profile reputational crises caused by accusations of greenwashing has left communicators and marketeers wanting to know more about the world of sustainability and ESG and how best to support their organisations.

Our panel comprised Matt Peacock, a senior partner with the strategic and creative advisory firm Blurred, specialising in environmental, social and governance (ESG) risk and corporate purpose. And Hilary Berg, the Head of Strategy at M&C Saatchi LIFE and previously Head of Sustainability at UK supermarket Iceland Foods.

Matt began by reminding us all that the crisis threatened by not doing anything on the climate change front is potentially infinitely worse than making misleading green claims: “Let’s not lose sight of the fact the crisis we are talking about is the extinction of the majority of humanity within my children’s lifetime.” A salutary reminder of how high the stakes are.

Also, a reminder of how much most organisations really are seeking to be part of the solution rather than being part of the problem. Mostly organisations seek to act with good intent when talking about their environmental credentials but as Matt outlined there is a “tidal wave” of new legislation and regulations coming down the track which helps us to understand why the risk of a greenwashing crisis has been heightened.

The first point is to remember is that we should not really view so-called “green claims” as being any different from any other claim we may make about the goods and services our organisations market.  It should be as unacceptable to claim non-existent environmental credentials as it is to claim anything else about your product that is not true. We could see the new legislation and regulation in this area as making this fact clear but there is a bit more to it than that.

Claims made must cover the full lifecycle of the product or service from sourcing to disposal.  Consumers need to be very clear if the claim covers the entirety of the product or just part of it.  Using vague terms about the whole business such as “eco-friendly” or “green” without being mindful of these facts could be very risky indeed.

Whilst the Directive is still in draft form, and we are unlikely to see its adoption in any form until 2027 at the earliest (and the fact that the UK has left the EU) we are already feeling its impact in recent rulings by the Advertising Standards Association (ASA) against companies such as HSBC and Etihad.  HSBC’s ads championing the investment the bank was making in helping its clients make the net zero transition or the number of trees it was planting to offset carbon emissions were not seen by the ASA to balance out the lending it still provided to fossil fuel companies.

Likewise, the airline Etihad fell foul of the Advertising Standards Association (ASA) over its use of the phrase “sustainable aviation” in its advertising.  In its ruling the ASA commented: “While we noted steps were being taken by Etihad to reduce the environmental impact of its service, we understood that there were currently no initiatives or commercially viable technologies in operation within the aviation industry which would adequately substantiate an absolute green claim such as “sustainable aviation” as we considered consumers would interpret it in this context.”

The recently-published proposed EU Directive on Green Claims would require organisations to ensure all environmental-related credentials were supported by recognised, scientific evidence. And these claims will need to be verified by an independent scientific verifier.

This move to outlaw untrue green claims is a global one. As Matt pointed out we are seeing similar laws and regulations in all sorts of jurisdictions – from the US to Japan and beyond.

It was against this challenging backdrop that we were able to ask Hilary Berg at M&C Saatchi LIFE how her clients were fairing and what advice she would give to professional communicators looking to avoid a crisis in this area.  So, what were the skills we need to develop to spot the ESG-related crises before they happen?

Interestingly, Hilary reminded us of classic PR theory and the excellence theory in particular. Grunig’s excellence theory was all about two-way communication facilitated by professional PRs with the aim of helping organisations understand and adapt to the environment around them. Excellence requires communicators to have a seat at the table when decisions are made and to be able to horizon scan spotting where the organisation is not delivering against what its stakeholders expect. Now that expectations around ESG are so high that gap between delivery and ambition can loom large.

There is a twist though as Hilary observed: “Business typically looked at the impact the outside world has on them now they have to look at the impact they have on the outside world.”  Communicators should also look at the ethical dimension of helping organisations make the right decisions or as Matt commented it’s more like being a “priest not a postman.”

As ever PR practitioners are in a good position to prevent green reputational crises by bringing together different areas of the organisation before it is too late. As Matt observed “brand creativity” by marketeers can get some way down the track leaving the lawyers to come in with “the emergency handbrake.” But it is not just marketeers who can get carried away with unsubstantiated green claims. Hilary warned PRs too of what she termed “bad communication” such as stunts showcasing just a small part of what an organisation is doing on the sustainability front but without any reference to the wider impact that the organisation has.

For those of us working as or in PR agencies there was a growing concern about who we choose to work for too. “Professional services have been part of the problem in a very significant way,” observed Hilary. Another salutary reminder of how this issue is challenging us all.

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On a final note: a takeout from this Webinar was a real sense of how fellow communicators are up for supporting each other navigate this new terrain. There was a hunger too for further information and suggestions were dotted throughout the chat of useful sources of reading on ESG and sustainability.

Webinar recording

Here are a few resources that were mentioned on the day:

BooksEmpire of Pain; The Big Con

Site to search for academic literature –  and on the broader context of ESG:

Useful free ESG news site

Government information on greenwashing

Free and paid for education on ESG/sustainability

Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership

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