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Communicating with Confidence: How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Green Claims

Communicating sustainability is becoming an increasingly risky business. According to European Union data, 42% of green claims on company websites are “likely to be exaggerated, false or deceptive[i].

External stakeholders, from media to regulators, are increasingly sceptical of brands’ intentions when it comes to sustainability. More so than not, consumers are also defaulting to doubt and taking to social media to voice their concerns.

Regulatory frameworks are also a work in progress. Very recently, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) updated its guidance, meaning that sweeping statements like “eco-friendly” or “100% recycled” will need to include verifiable evidence that proves an environmental benefit over comparable products. This evidence will need to sit within an advert or be clearly sign-posted for the audience.

For more polluting industries, the ASA is placing greater scrutiny on how they communicate. With adverts referring to lower-carbon activities without information about a company’s overall environmental impact now facing further review by the regulator.

In the same vein, the European Commission’s Green Claims Directive (GCD) will also target the language brands use when discussing sustainability. Terms including “eco”, “natural” and “environmentally friendly” will require substantiating evidence if they are used in campaigns. If current proposals go ahead, then brands will also be required to communicate the specific components of a product that are sustainable, in an aim to clamp down on misleading broad-brush claims.

How brands are responding

The rising pessimism and regulatory scrutiny is causing many brands to retreat into their shell, while the graveyard of half-baked sustainability initiatives slowly grows in journalists’ column inches, social media feeds and, more significantly, regulators’ dossiers.

But this is at odds with the growing business case for sustainable-first thinking. Making products more sustainable is increasingly recognised at the top-levels of leadership as being good for business, supported by an increasing bank of evidence. Indeed, research of the US market by McKinsey and NielsenIQ, shows how products carrying ESG-related claims drive 8% more sales growth than those without[ii].

Whether brands like it or not, all will need to be on the front foot with purpose-led campaigns sooner rather than later. But to do so effectively, PR and Marketing functions will need to be acutely aware of the external context they are communicating into and follow the ebb-and-flow of the political landscape closely to not fall into a trap when regulation is inevitably passed.

Navigating the new sustainability landscape

At Ketchum London, we have been working with clients to help them to communicate their sustainability stories effectively. Taking an evidence-based approach to storytelling is one of the fundamentals of communicating purpose, and the emerging regulatory landscape looks to be based on this principal as well.

In an environmental context, this means leaning into science wherever possible. Methodologies, such as a Life Cycle Assessments, might once have been considered too ‘dry’ to be front-and-centre of communication. However, it is exactly these kinds of scientific basis that media, regulatory bodies and more recently consumers all expect brands to be showcased in their messaging.

Leading with science shows due diligence, while crucially it helps to prevent campaign messaging from becoming ambiguous – probably the greatest risk that brands will need to be aware of going forward.

Utilizing the latest scientific guidance is also an authentic way to communicate progress, which is another area that brands need to be much more forthcoming with showcasing externally to win trust. The best examples of long-term sustainable storytelling invite consumers to share in the journey, its highs, and its lows.

No stakeholder is expecting a silver bullet. What is expected is an explanation of ‘what’ a brand is doing, as well as the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of those decisions, all of which is aligned to science and the current regulatory framework.


Ketchum’s Sustainability and Purpose experts offer a half-day workshop designed to help our clients navigate sustainable storytelling with confidence. From how to demonstrate a deep understanding of the ever-shifting external context by future-proofing messaging, to the tools to support communications teams to be agile to new approaches – such as the ASA guidance – as they emerge, Ketchum London can help. For more information about our sustainability and purpose workshops, please get in touch with me or another member of the Ketchum team.



Authored by Sofia Westaby, Account Director at Ketchum London