Sustainable PR – supporting real eco practices or mere greenwashing?

‘Green PR’ seems to be another highfalutin term used by companies to attract customers. However, sustainable communication really matters – the vast majority of customers today choose sustainable products and support organizations implementing sustainable practices.

The upcoming Earth Day (April 22) is a good opportunity to remind ourselves of the importance of communicating commitment to sustainability by organizations. At a time when environmental issues have become such a ‘hot’ topic, sustainable practices really shape the image of firms. Over 80% of companies have a formal ESG program. But only half of the firms believe they really have an impact on environmental and social issues.

Sustainable communication really matters

What is ESG?

Today, to gain a competitive advantage over other firms in the industry companies must offer something more than quality products or services and low prices. Among the factors that play an important role in shaping a company’s competitive position are sustainable practices, which constitute a part of the so-called ESG.

According to the definition, environmental, social and governance (ESG) is a term used to represent an organization’s corporate financial interests that focus mainly on sustainable and ethical impacts. ESG company is, therefore, such an organization that tries to act responsibly and takes into account the environmental and social aspects of its activities.

Implementing ESG in companies – challenges

Although ESG and sustainable practices have become real business imperatives, companies often fall short of their ESG goals. The main obstacle in creating an effective ESG strategy is data. Nearly a quarter of companies believe that corporate silos are a barrier to ESG progress. Organizational silos are associated with the decentralization of a company. In such situations, each department may put its own targets above those of the company and collect its own data that is difficult for others in the organization to access. In addition to this, most firms have their data spread across different systems and latitudes. This results in the fragmentation of data which leads to difficulties in organizing and analyzing it. 

According to the research conducted by OnePoll on behalf of NAVEX Global, half of the respondents believe that their company performs effectively against environmental metrics. Just over a third of them say that their company’s performance against governance and social issues is very effective. These figures show that while the vast majority of organizations try to act sustainably and implement green practices, in reality, most of their employees do not believe their actions have a real impact on the environment or society.

Sustainable PR – how to build a ‘green’ image?

Sustainable Public Relations helps companies build an effective ESG strategy, set sustainable goals and communicate them to the public. At a time when commitment to sustainability has become a requirement for a company or a public figure, building a green, eco-friendly image is crucial. 

Why do we need green PR? Nowadays sustainable procurement is a priority for consumers most of them really take into consideration sustainable practices of a company while making purchasing decisions three quarters of them say that they will stop buying from firms that treat the environment, employees, or the community in which they operate poorly. The significant majority of buyers (88%) assert their loyalty to companies that care about social and environmental issues. Statistics show that implementing an ESG strategy by an organization translates into its profits. Additionally, more and more companies are taking the pledge to work only with ‘green’ partners. Therefore, it is important to be able to demonstrate in the report that a company is sustainable. Otherwise, it may cause a significant drop in commissions.

Eco PR goals and practices

What does sustainability PR look like? There is a set of eco PR goals and sustainable practices that guide ESG agencies. Among green PR goals are:

  • creating an effective message that communicates the company’s mission and vision;
  • improving the client’s reputation and building a ‘sustainable’ image of a company;
  • gaining third-party certifications that validate the company’s sustainable practices;
  • communicating with employees in the process of setting ESG goals and building a green strategy.

When creating a ‘green message’ it may be more important to communicate the idea itself rather than focusing on the company that implements it. One of our agencies Profeina decided to stick to this rule while cooperating with Clean Air Fund a global philanthropic organization whose mission is to fight for clean air for everyone and who patronizes the creation of Low Emission Zones in Europe. 

Tasks that were set before the agency include:

  • exploring which messages regarding clean air and urban mobility issues are effective and most persuasive;
  • developing a narrative on the impact of cars on air quality and the creation of Low Emission Zones that would be useful to professionals;
  • communication support for the launch of the TRUE Initiative report on vehicle emissions in Warsaw.

Alongside the tasks, came challenges that Profeina had to face. First of all, Low Emission Zones did not exist in Poland before and it was not known whether this idea would be supported. In addition, there was a risk that the ‘sustainability’ topic would not break through the media noise since the ‘hot’ topics at the time were the war in Ukraine and the pandemic. 

The ESG agency used various means to achieve its goals Profeina’s specialists conducted workshops for local government officials and experts, and prepared a sustainable PR campaign around the launch of the TRUE Initiative report, creating press releases to the media illustrated with infographics. However, the most important step in the project turned out to be a joint press conference with representatives of the Warsaw City Hall. The presence of Warsaw’s Deputy Mayor was crucial, making it easier to attract top media, while the interesting results of the TRUE Initiative report gave the city authorities expert knowledge on which they could rely when communicating proposals for change.

The project turned out to be a huge success which was reflected in the numbers there were 241 publications in various media outlets; with its sustainability message Profeina, together with Clean Air Fund, reached over 2.6 m. people

This case shows how important an information campaign is in the context of sustainable PR as well as raising public awareness on environmental issues and reaching out to officials and experts who can make a real difference and introduce changes. Such a communication constitutes almost an ESG requirement and is an example of a sustainable practice that should be followed.

Why do we need green PR? Nowadays sustainable procurement is a priority for consumers

Green PR vs greenwashing – a fine line?

In the context of sustainability PR, the so-called greenwashing is often mentioned. Sometimes, practices that at first glance appear to be sustainable, are in fact just examples of greenwashing.

Greenwashing (also known as ‘green sheen’) is defined as making a claim to deceive consumers into believing that a company’s practices, products, services, etc. are environmentally friendly or have a positive impact on social issues. Organizations try to make money by making a false statement about being ‘green’. 

Year after year, more and more companies are introducing ESG strategies and practices and many of them are adopting greenwashing. Below, we have collected examples of this unethical behavior from recent years.

  • In 2019 McDonald’s replaced plastic straws with paper ones, as part of their new eco-friendly image and green strategy. However, it turned out that they were non-recyclable. 
  • In 2021 the Changing Markets Foundation released a report regarding greenwashing practices in the fast-fashion industry. They found out that 60% of sustainability claims made by high-street fashion brands were misleading. The undisputed leader in the number of such false green statements was H&M (96% of their claims turned out to be made up). That means that most of their clothes with the green-tinged tag were not necessarily ‘conscious’.
  • Ryanair made false low-emission claims in 2020. The company tried to convince the public that they are ‘Europe’s lowest emissions airline’. Yet this statement turned out to have been made up.

It is not always easy to recognize greenwashing and distinguish it from true Eco PR practices. However, there are some signs that may indicate that a company is not really sustainable. Pay attention to buzzwords such as ‘green,’ ‘plant-based,’ ‘eco-friendly,’ ‘natural,’ ‘organic,’ etc. If a company uses such wording and does not support it with explanations and details, there is a great chance that that is just greenwashing. It is also recommended to check if an organization making green claims has some reliable certifications that validate its commitment to sustainability. 

Are tech companies green?

The companies our tech PR agencies work with may be an interesting case as while generally they are perceived as quite ‘green,’ there are still different aspects that make their negative environmental impact significant. Many people may think that because tech companies create digital products, all the employees need to work is a computer and some electricity and that it does the environment almost no harm. But this is just an illusion. In fact, the ICT sector accounts for more than 2% of global emissions that is almost the same as the aviation industry’s carbon footprint from fuel emissions. Projections for the future are even more frightening if nothing changes, by 2040 the tech industry will be responsible for 15% of emissions.

What makes tech companies have such a destructive impact on the environment? There is more than one answer to this question. First of all, data centers need a huge amount of power to operate. After all, the amount of data processed by tech firms is large and constantly growing. The second factor is the development of AI and the Internet of Things, which is an ecosystem of interconnected devices. IoT devices are equipped with sensors that collect data from the environment and send them to the Cloud to which all ‘smart’ objects are connected. More and more people and their devices are becoming connected in this way which makes one wonder if there will be enough electricity in the future to power it. 

Taking all these facts into consideration, sustainability becomes especially crucial in the tech sector. Tech companies will, therefore, be more likely to choose RES-powered data centers to prove their commitment to the environment. This should be also taken into account during ESG audits.

Joanna Broniewska
Joanna Broniewska

PR specialist, freelance journalist, and cultural anthropologist with considerable intercultural experience in her professional and personal life. She has lived in Spain, Chile, and Greece, and is passionate about Andean culture, 20th-century Latin American history, and Pablo Picasso, to whom she dedicated her master’s thesis.


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