Part 1 of our new series "Next Generation Corporate - Deep Dive CSR"


Even if Corona is ruling our lives right now – sustainability remains the topic of the century. No matter if in politics, society or the economy. Sustainability is not just nice to have, it’s a duty. Now and in the future. Of course, this also applies to us as consultants for strategic communication. After all, what topic is suited better for our guiding principle of "Next Generation Corporate" than this one? It calls for genuine rethinking and entirely new ways of acting.

In our series “Deep Dive CSR”, we want to take a look at this interlinked and complex topic from a communications perspective. Piece by piece, in order to continuously give shape to the overall picture being filled with possibilities but also risks. And the first picture we are looking at is a clear fake: Welcome to the world of greenwashing.

But first, let's take one step back: What are we talking about exactly?

Sustainability communications, CR communications, CSR communications. Let's start with what will perhaps make the smallest difference in practice: the term. In this part of the world, the aforementioned options are partly used synonymously. Their original focus on environmental or socioeconomic issues has ceased to exist a long time ago.

So, what is important? Exactly. What we collectively understand by it. And this is where CSR communications is suited best. Corporate Social Responsibility describes the most important facets of our perspective in just three words. First: We look at the companies. Secondly, we look at corporate responsibility. Which, thirdly, goes beyond making a profit.

However, there is one thing that this term cannot do, and probably no other can either: it shows us what issues are at stake. And for this aspect it is worth taking a look at the UN Sustainable Development Goals from 2015,which set out seventeen goals that display how extensive sustainability can be. But they also demonstrate that environmental, species and climate protection are important but only constituent parts of the whole picture. They do not make up the entire picture of social, economic and ecological sustainability.

Greenwashing has many nuances

A large number of studies proves that sustainability is gaining in importance everywhere - concerning society as a whole, consumption and job satisfaction. At the same time, the public debate about the conduct of firms is also becoming increasingly broad and more detailed. Internal and external stakeholders alike are examining CSR measures in particular and are scrutinizing them relentlessly.

In this context, the literal "greenwashing" is the biggest mistake from the point of view of strategic communications: companies communicate that they assume social responsibility, for example, in relation to individual products or the entire corporate strategy. Yet, the actual "acting green" is missing as well as rigorous thought-out actions. Also communicating sustainable management without acting sustainably is and remains a farce for many stakeholders. The effect on a company's reputation becomes clear rather quickly, for example, in the event of a public counter-campaign. The loss of trust among relevant stakeholders is preprogrammed. And this limits the company's own room for maneuvers.

But why do companies do it then? Only to fulfill expectations, attract attention and achieve economic goals. However, greenwashing does not even have to be a shameless lie. Often enough it is a tool for companies to exaggerate irrelevant or insignificant factors, gloss over things, or communicate misleading statements of intent as well as pictures and labels. Even if companies merely use unclear terms like "green" in their communication without explaining them in detail, it is still considered greenwashing. But CSR communications needs quite the opposite: honesty and clarity. Those are the most important.

There are many examples of accusations related to greenwashing: Aldi charging for plastic fruit bags, Deutsche Bahn and the green Bahncard or even H&M's textile recycling campaign. Some more dated accusations show that greenwashing is not a new phenomenon. For example, there are the allegations by Greenpeace against RWE’s energy giant image film from 2009. Or Krombacher’s campaign "Drinking beer for the rainforest", which was launched in 2002 and is still ongoing.

The picture is not only black and white - but it has clear outlines

As much as we wish it was different: The fine line between well-intentionedpublic relations and greenwashing is somehow blurry. Most of the time it is not about blatant lies that are easily refutable. It is rather about the varying degrees with which the truth is being highlighted. In terms of uncalculated greenwashing, it would be naive to think that large-scale campaigns accidentally serve accusations. But still, greenwashing doesn’t always have to be the result of rigorously planned and deliberate choices - at least on a smaller scale. All too often, only lip service is paid when it comes to how complex CSR communication actually is.

Today, a careless choice of words by the top-level executives or simply hasty action without analyzing the facts first is enough to cause related accusations. This risk grows along with the increasing expectations of stakeholders and also with the company's (possibly genuine) aspiration to achieve more sustainability. As so often: Ignorance is no excuse. That is why our series "Next Generation Corporate - Deep Dive CSR" will be discussing what needs to be considered when it comes to good CSR communications. However, we would like to give you three tips on how to prevent greenwashing accusations:

1. Hardly anyone will deny that it is complicated and time-consuming to implement CSR measures: Yet be bold and dare to communicate publicly even small sub-steps instead of attracting attention with exaggerated words.

2. Talk to different experts: Only if the management, the departments and the communications division are willing to jointly discuss the matter from the start your message will be notable and pose fewer risks.

3. Trust external assessments: You want to know what effects your project will have? Then ask uninvolved parties for their opinions and take their feedback seriously.

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