Goodbye Greenwashing

– Hello Credibility!

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Doubts surrounding their "green" product promises are currently shaking up seemingly green flagship companies. For the brands with a truly sustainable mission, this is good news. A commentary by Harald Willenbrock, our Head of Concept & Content Sustainability.

When investigators moved into Frankfurt's banking district on one early morning at the end of May to turn the offices of the fund company DWS upside down, a new chapter dawned for the sustainability industry. The raid was triggered by suspicions that the Deutsche Bank subsidiary had been selling "green financial products" as "more sustainable" than they actually were. The former head of sustainability at DWS had made the accusation public last summer. Reports that funds interpret their sustainability criteria extremely liberally have been circulating for some time. But now, for the first time, a public prosecutor's office is investigating a major German bank on suspicion of greenwashing.

Green label fraud is not a privilege of the big players only

Just three days later, it became known that the ocean-saving startup Got Bag apparently wasn't too truthful either. The company, which claims to use "100 percent recycled ocean plastic," probably actually makes its popular backpacks from just about two-thirds plastic waste. What sounds like peanuts to some is "a clear case of customer deception” to consumer advocates.In any case, it was a lucrative coup for Got Bag: The supposedly clean brand recently achieved eight-figure sales.

The attempted deception was uncovered by the newsletter magazine flip - those researchers who last year attached mini-transmitters onto used sneakers from Zara, Nike & Co and placed them in collection garbage cans. With this sensational action, the journalists were able to prove that old shoes often end up in landfills instead of recycling plants - the place where the green promises of many companies apparently also belong.

In fact, however, the series of revelations is encouraging news for all those who are serious about sustainability. Because they demonstrate: The time for half-baked claims is over. Brands that sell themselves and their products as sustainable must increasingly expect to be taken seriously and critically scrutinized. "Being a little less of a jerk, making a little less waste, is simply not enough anymore," says Nora Sophie Griefahn, founder of the environmental protection organization C2C.

Sustainability is not a permanent state, but a continuous journey

Does this mean that companies should wait with their sustainability communication until every last gram of production waste has been recycled? To be on the safe side, should they only go public when their vest really seems absolutely spotless? Not at all. Sustainability is not a state that a company could ever achieve (and we as an agency are a long way from that, too), but a path that it embarks on. And one that it ideally takes its customers, employees and fans along with.

"I experience that there are great reservations about communicating openly," says Antje von Dewitz, Managing Director of the outdoor brand VAUDE, which is considered a role model in its industry when it comes to sustainability. "I would say have courage to do so! Everyone is aware that nothing is perfect, and if you try to communicate only when everything is perfect, you'll wait forever."

And Antje von Dewitz knows what she's talking about. Her company, which with 529 employees is not an overly complex organization, needed more than ten strenuous years to transform itself into an ecological-social role model company. "Sustainability," she explains, "is a long, complex process that is actually never finished."

Openness and honesty matter

The only question is whether a brand accompanies this process with full-bodied promises à la DWS and Got Bag - or whether it honestly reports the inevitable frustrations and setbacks along the way. Credibility, as the latest revelations show, can only be gained in the long term with openness and honesty. In this way, the current crisis of credibility could yet turn out to be a genuine trust-building measure.