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Skip the Greenwashing: Promoting F&B Sustainability Benefits Without Gimmicks

Side note: we help coffee, food, and food tech businesses amplify their expertise, delight readers, and generate revenue. See our work and results.

Sustainability claims are everywhere in the food and beverage industries.

“When you buy a bag of our coffee, we’ll plant a tree!”

“We donate a portion of profits to non-profit organizations that fight deforestation.”

“Our team spends every third Friday afternoon picking out plastic from the ocean.”

These claims drive consumer purchase decisions and therefore, brand marketing campaigns. According to a NielsenIQ study, 78% of US consumers state that sustainability is important to them. And, if we choose to believe in the goodness of humans, it makes sense as to why companies would want to use their products, services, and/or profits to benefit the environment.

But, what happens when a company goes too far with environmental, social, or economic claims? Greenwashing happens.

The Grass Isn’t Always Greener

Greenwashing refers to the practice of misrepresenting the environmental impact of a company’s products, services, or organizational practices. 

Greenwashing can look like:

  • Exaggerating claims of a company’s donation amounts to sustainability initiatives
  • Inaccurate reports of a company’s carbon footprint or usage of natural resources 
  • Stating a product uses eco-friendly packaging products when the opposite is true
  • Claiming to participate in various sustainability activities without proof 

Greenwashing comes in all shapes and sizes. Some instances are small, such as a locally-owned restaurant claiming to recycle bottles and cans in social media posts and instead tossing them in with the trash. Others are of a global magnitude like Keurig paying $10 million in 2022 to settle a class action lawsuit against the company’s recycling claims. The coffee pod manufacturer labeled and promoted K-Cups as recyclable, when in reality many recycling facilities would not accept them, leaving thousands of customers with pounds of pod plastic to deal with.

Keurig isn’t the only beverage giant guilty of greenwashing. When Starbucks launched its strawless lid initiative, the company claimed it was doing so out of a desire to use less plastic. The problem? The straw-free lid used more plastic than the straw and lid combination.

Even Coca-Cola once advertised it used 25% ocean-sourced plastic in its bottles. Well, actually, it used 25% ocean-sourced plastic in 300 bottles, ever. A prime example of greenwashing.

Here’s the kicker: it’s not hard to see why companies engage in greenwashing promotional practices, whether intentionally or not. 

A 2020 McKinsey US consumer sentiment survey discovered that more than 60% of respondents would be willing to pay more for a product that uses sustainable packaging. Another survey by Cargill reported that 55% of global consumers are more likely to purchase a packaged food item that contains a sustainability claim on the label. And, McKinsey also reports that consumer products making environmental, social, and governance (ESG) claims averaged 28% cumulative growth over the past five-year period, compared to the 20% growth for products without such claims.

Customers want to buy from companies that are proactive about sustainability.

In an attempt to capture the customer audience interested in environmental, social, and governance values, many companies unfortunately default to using sustainability claims in their promotional efforts with little to no follow-through… aka, greenwashing.

I Spy With My Little Eye, Deception

If greenwashing runs rampant throughout the food and beverage industry, how can we spot it? Turns out, relatively easily.

Take a walk through the grocery store and see if you can find companies using promotional tactics like…

  • Generic buzzwords or jargon — “Eco-friendly,” “non-toxic,” and even “organically-grown” can all be examples of greenwashing in action. Many of these terms aren’t backed by specific regulations or actions from the company and tend to be used as a promotional tool. If there’s vague sustainability or environmental terminology without proof, that’s greenwashing in action.
  • Grand gestures — Companies make mistakes. It happens. But when an oil company known for previous mishaps, for example, suddenly invests in mass advertising around green alternatives, there’s a high probability that it’s greenwashing at play. 
  • Literally green —  When a company’s packaging and promotional materials suddenly look like Kermit the Frog became CEO, chances are some greenwashing is at play. Imagine if McDonald’s changed the golden arches to green to celebrate the company’s new “eco-friendly packaging.” You’d be a bit suspicious too, right?
  • Fake designations — Companies love to use language like “vegetarian-approved” or “made with all-natural ingredients.” And why not? It speaks to the target audience. The problem arises when these designations become a symbol of “goodness” or false certification.

Take a look at your company’s marketing. Are you guilty of greenwashing? 

You Can Promote Your Business Without Falling Victim to Greenwashing

Unfortunately, most companies don’t even realize they’ve committed an act of greenwashing. 

This is because the majority of greenwashing offenses aren’t coming from a place of evil or malice. It’s often the result of misguided promotional tactics.

This doesn’t mean you need to be fearful of promoting your company’s sustainability efforts. Instead, companies must be more mindful of how they market any type of ESG claim. 

To promote your brand’s sustainability initiatives without fear of greenwashing, keep the following tips in mind.

Evidence is Your Friend

The problem with most greenwashing examples is that they lack proof to back up their claims. 

If your promotional plan requires your company to make large claims about environmental, social, or economic impacts, come prepared with the facts to support your statements. Internal data and studies are a great place to start, especially if you can be transparent about how this information was collected.

But, if your company has the resources to do so, find a way to have a third-party source verify your findings. There are ample companies and organizations dedicated to providing verification services for everything from recyclable materials to internal hiring procedures. Third-party verification adds legitimacy and credibility to all future promotional efforts.

Remain Relevant 

You’ll know a company is committing an act of greenwashing when the “data” they use to support their claims is irrelevant, unverified, or way off-base. 

In an extreme example, this can look like a consumer-packaged goods company justifying their choice of packaging materials with statistics about deforestation. Sure, deforestation is a serious concern, but unless that company is directly involved with thwarting the destruction of nature… it likely has little to do with the materials they use to package their products.

Make sure all data used to back up any sustainability, social, or economic claims is relevant, targeted, and most importantly, accurate.

Be Specific

Vague language is one of the most obvious signs of greenwashing, whether intentional or not. Combat this by using specific language that directly communicates your company’s sustainability impact.

Instead of using phrases like “all-natural ingredients,” list out what those ingredients are! 

Rather than talking about your company’s “commitment to sustainability,” create content detailing how the business is directly acting on sustainability initiatives. 

Don’t resort to jargon like “carefully sourced green coffee.” Talk about the farm this particular coffee comes from and how you came upon it.

The more specific you can be, the more you reduce your chances of accidentally greenwashing your promotional efforts. 

Additionally, being vague only leads to more customer confusion. After all, what do phrases like “organic packaging materials” or “vegan-approved ingredients” really mean without specificity? 

Don’t Say It, Show It!

It’s one thing to say your company is committed to sustainability initiatives. It’s another to show that you’re committed to sustainability through documented actions.

On top of providing evidence of your various efforts, create video content that shows customers exactly how you’re accomplishing these projects or goals.

This can be as simple as bringing customers behind the scenes and demonstrating how your company uses recycled materials in product packaging. Or, you can film a video taking viewers along as you and your team participate in an ocean cleanup. Not only does video content show customers that you’re serious about your sustainability initiatives, but it also serves a dual purpose as promotional materials for your company.

The trick, however, is to film this content authentically and frequently. A “one and done” video with obvious uses of stock footage doesn’t come across as a genuine commitment to the environment. 

Invest in video content that is frequently captured and shared with your audience. This ongoing transparency of your brand’s environmental efforts will work to ensure that all promotional campaigns not only have ample content to leverage but also prove to consumers that your company is truthful in its sustainability claims.

Watch Your Tone

If your business is enthusiastically posting on social media about changing all of the lightbulbs in your facility to more environmentally friendly options, that’s a greenwashing red flag. No one is that excited about lightbulbs. 

To avoid claims of greenwashing, be sure your promotional language is factual and sincere. 

Take these two examples. Which do you think would be considered greenwashing?

“We source and roast USDA-certified organic green coffee from farmers in coffee-producing regions such as Colombia, Mexico, Honduras, and Brazil.”

“We tirelessly travel the globe in search of the finest exclusive green coffee varieties grown only using the most rigorous of organic farming practices.”

The second example sounds a bit much, doesn’t it? That’s because it probably is too good to be true. With a USDA Organic Certification, the first example has third-party verification of its claim and presents the facts, while the second example is pure fluff.

Visuals Matter

Nothing says “We’re guilty of greenwashing!” like stock imagery of people recycling, a lush field of grass, and picturesque views of the Alps or sprawling ocean.

If your goal is to authentically and accurately promote your sustainability initiatives—as it should be—stock photos aren’t the move. Instead, invest in a photographer who can work with your team to best capture what your company is doing to promote environmental sustainability. 

These photos will be an objective representation of your efforts that simultaneously captivate and convince customers to buy.

Authenticity, Accuracy, and Transparency Lead to Credible Sustainability Claims

Although it’s never a great time to be accused of greenwashing, the SEC is cracking down on ESG claims. The more you do to “fluff” your promotional efforts in hopes of a sale, the further your business will fall when it’s proven to be a false claim. As you embark on promoting your company’s sustainability efforts, it boils down to three simple tips: 

Be authentic. Be accurate. Be transparent.

Anne Mercer

Anne is a content marketing manager at Alimentous Studio and Fresh Cup Magazine. She is also a co-owner of Victus Coffee, a Connecticut-based coffee roastery and cafe.

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