How to avoid the top 5 greenwashing pitfalls
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How to avoid the top 5 greenwashing pitfalls

Credible green claims are key to tackling climate change. We list the top greenwash pitfalls and how to avoid them.

In recent years, there have been a number of high-profile cases in which large companies have come under fire for 'greenwashing' – making unsubstantiated or false claims about the environmental impact of their operations, products or services. For example:

  • Volkswagen notoriously fitted their cars with a 'defeat device' which purported to control their emissions, but was only activated during testing.
  • A 2021 report from Changing Markets Foundation discovered that, on average, ~60% of the 'green' claims made by major fashion brands were misleading (with H&M the worst offender, at 96%.

In response, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in the UK has recently published guidance around how businesses should communicate to avoid greenwashing. This covers anything a business claims in relation to the environment: e.g. their use of plastics and biodegradability; use of harmful chemicals; or their effect on biodiversity.

The trickiest part of green communication is often around greenhouse gas emissions, typically the primary focus for climate action, with quantifiable effects and a plethora of confusing standards and regulations.

Below, we list the top emission-related marketing claims that we see businesses getting wrong – and explain how to make sure your business is credible.

"We’re pleased to announce that we’re now Net Zero"

Many businesses confuse the terms 'Carbon Neutral' and 'Net Zero' when, as outlined in detail in a previous post, they mean quite different things. It’s very difficult to achieve Net Zero status now as it means you’ve reduced emissions (Scopes 1, 2 and 3) by at least 90% vs. the base year you've set as a point for comparison. Achieving Net Zero relies on the ability to use green energy (Scopes 1 and 2) and to purchase green products and services (Scope 3). As as result, for a typical business reaching Net Zero relies on broad reform across the economy, from energy infrastructure to supply chains. Net Zero is a long-term process of decarbonisation, rather than an immediate investment in offsetting. It is a target we are all aiming for collectively rather than achieving independently. Businesses claiming to be Net Zero at the moment are likely confusing this with Carbon Neutral.

How to avoid: If you’ve offset your total emissions, be sure to use the term Carbon Neutral. If you’ve committed to becoming Net Zero (i.e. reducing your emissions by at least 90%), then state this as a goal you’re working towards: “We’ve committed to becoming Net Zero by 2040 at the latest.”

"Our products/services are now carbon-free" (after becoming Carbon Neutral)

Carbon offsetting is a crucial element of the fight against climate change. It’s the primary source of funding for green initiatives in developing countries that would otherwise be more reliant on fossil fuels. However, claiming that investing in renewable energy or tree-planting makes your business activities 'free' of carbon whilst continuing to generate emissions is misleading. Offsetting simply balances the negative impact of your business on climate warming with a positive impact - it does not eliminate a footprint. Reducing emissions is the priority over offsetting.

How to avoid: Stick to carbon neutral, not carbon-free, and articulate what this means: “We’re carbon-neutral, which means we've offset our footprint by investing in projects which reduce/remove an equivalent amount of GHG emissions to those we emit.”

"Our deliveries are now carbon-free" (after switching to electric vehicles)

It’s true that electric vehicles are emission-free when they’re driving around. This is important and beneficial for the air we breathe in cities – but it’s not the full picture. When electric vehicles are charged, they draw on grid electricity which (as covered below) is by no means fully renewable. This is a particular problem when recharging your electric vehicles in countries which remain heavily reliant on fossil fuels. They are also more carbon intensive to produce than conventional (internal combustion engine) cars, largely due to their batteries.

How to avoid: When the full value chain and lifecycle of the electric car is taken into account, it’s still lower-emission than conventional vehicles – but it’s by no means carbon free. “Our deliveries are now lower-carbon” would be more accurate.

"We are powered by 100% renewable electricity"

This is a tricky topic which we've explained in more detail in a dedicated article. To summarise, for businesses connected to the grid, there are two essential problems with the above statement:

  1. Every home and business that’s connected to the UK grid physically receives electricity generated by the same fuel mix - there is no 'direct connection' from your supplier to your location. So when you flick on a switch or power up a laptop, you’re consuming the same fuel mix as everyone else, regardless of tariff. According to the latest data,  41% of electricity generated in the UK is from renewable sources. This is a considerable improvement from <10% in 2010, but far from 100%.
  2. Many tariffs labelled 'green' do not necessarily drive investment in new renewable capacity. Instead, suppliers can purchase cheap certificates (termed Renewable Energy Guarantees of Origin or REGOs) instead of funding renewable capacity through Purchase Power Agreements (PPAs), or reallocate existing renewable capacity from a 'brown tariff' customer to a 'green tariff' customer. Energy suppliers that directly fund investment in renewable energy through PPAs do exist, but at the time of writing they are few and far between and with greenwashing rife it's a challenge to sort the good from the bad.

Whilst it can be difficult to verify the exact impact of your green tariff, demanding renewable energy remains a vital part of the Net-Zero transition. By purchasing a green tariff, your business sends a signal to the market which, directly or indirectly, increases the proportion of renewables in the national energy mix and reduces the emissions of all grid users collectively over time.

How to avoid: Be conservative in your claims. “We’ve adopted green tariff electricity in our offices to help drive the transition to renewable energy” explains your impact without risk of overstatement.

Still a little confused? Read this detailed explainer from the Seedling team.

"We’re carbon neutral - job done"

Whilst the above isn't said explicitly, businesses often promote their offsetting investments without sharing how they plan to reduce their footprint. To limit warming, it is essential to prioritise emissions reduction. This necessitates an accurate footprint in order to identify opportunities to reduce your impact.

By focussing your communications on reduction initiatives alongside offsetting, you can prove the credibility of your intention to tackle climate change and have a real impact by sharing (and learning from) best practise across your network.

At Seedling, we support you with:

  • A maximally accurate footprint (according to the GHG Protocol accuracy hierarchy).
  • Granular breakdown of emissions.
  • Bespoke reduction advice.
  • A public page through which to share your emissions reduction strategy, alongside footprint and offsetting initiatives.

How to avoid: Speak about emissions reductions first, and offsetting second. “We’re working hard to reduce our emissions by doing X, Y and Z. In addition, we’ve committed to offsetting emissions we can’t avoid to help fund the transition to a more sustainable world.”

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