'Greenwashing' Index: Jul-Dec '23

9 February 2024 | 13 min read | Clearly News
Clearly Team

A data-led research project that tracks the number of times the term ‘greenwashing’ is referenced in UK newspapers, magazines and broadcast media outlets.

Introduction

You would be forgiven for believing that ‘greenwashing’ is a relatively recent phenomenon. But you would be wrong. In fact, the term was coined by US environmentalist Jay Westerveld as far back as 1986.

According to the Encyclopedia of Corporate Social Responsibility, published by Springer, Westerveld penned an essay in which he “claimed the hotel industry falsely promoted the reuse of towels as part of a broader environmental strategy; when, in fact, the act was designed as a cost-saving measure.”

The term ‘greenwashing’ is now used to refer to any business or brand who engages in what Springer describes as the “dissemination of false or deceptive information regarding an organisation’s environmental strategies, goals, motivations, and actions.” And the number of examples of this are aplenty.

Indeed, over the last two years alone we have seen such names as BrewDog, H&M, Nespresso, Havas Media, Zara, Deutsche Bank, Decathlon, Lufthansa, Shell, BP, and – frustratingly – many more caught out for exaggerating their green credentials.

It’s something that we at Clearly PR have no qualms whatsoever about publicly venting our spleen over and will gladly name and shame those found guilty of blatant fraud. Because that’s what it is – fraud.

This isn’t just plain wrong, the actions of those committing these claims – the bullshiteratti – are deterring those businesses and brands who are genuinely doing great things from shouting about them for fear of equally being branded as a greenwasher.

There are some public relations industry commentators who believe that the days of greenwashing are numbered, and we share that sentiment. What is unclear at this time is when the lid will finally be shut and judging by the results shared within this report the media’s interest in greenwashing is doing anything but waning.

Eager to understand if our intuition that mentions of ‘greenwashing’ in the UK media are on the rise, we decided to track the term and see what the data told us.

We monitored the number of times the term ‘greenwashing’ appeared in articles, interviews, and features in the local, regional, and national media. Our analysis begins in July 2023, and we have collated the data every month for six months to the end of December 2023.

For each month’s analysis below, we have provided some context to account for the number of mentions. We look at key events that may have created a spike in the frequency of references, and we share some of the most consumed stories in the media where the topic of greenwashing was dominant.

Positive reputation management is critical to the success of any business and brand. ESG (environment, social, and governance) communications is fast becoming an integral part of the wider marketing mix and it needs to.

However, it is only effective in terms of the desired outcomes (enhanced reputation, improved brand perception) if the information being shared in the public domain can be truly substantiated – backed up.

We know of some public relations agencies who encourage their clients to go to press with every little ESG-related initiative that their business or brand is involved with. Others advise them to steer well clear and keep schtum. Both camps are wrong.

ESG communications (or ESG comms as many refer to it) should be embraced but only if – and this is non-negotiable – you have the data to support your claims.

This is the message we drive home to every organisation that consults us on their ESG strategy. Without the data, you create a vacuum for speculation and suggestion that perhaps not everything you claim to be doing is necessarily the case.

It is our hope that the following helps to provide you with an overview of how the issue of greenwashing continues to be problematic. The media’s interest remains high simply because the prevalence of cases remains so.

But we are eternally optimistic here a Clearly PR. We believe that greenwashing is fast approaching its tipping point. Once that is reached, there is only one way in which it can go from there.

Paul MacKenzie-Cummins, Managing Director

Overview of the six months to 31st December 2023

by Rebecca Addley and Paul MacKenzie-Cummins

Between July and December 2023, press mentions of ‘greenwashing’ rose from 1,942 in July to 2,918 in December. That’s a 50 per cent increase in just six months.

A daily view of the period shows sharp troughs on the weekends, particularly Saturdays. This is expected as journalists may not be working and readership will be less interested in business and sustainability stories.

The months with the lowest interest in ‘greenwashing’ were July and August. November was relatively quiet for the first three weeks, with media mentions of greenwashing rocketing at the end of the month with the start of COP28 which ran from 30th November through to 13th December.

Press stories about ‘greenwashing’ were highest in December with 12th December seeing more mentions in the media than at any other time during the six month period.

Stories overall tend to focus on government or legal changes, such as investigations by government watchdogs, business greenwashing, and activist news, with Greta Thunberg featuring heavily.

(1/6) Media mentions of ‘greenwashing’ in July: 1,942

Daily view 1st-31st August

July was the first full month of keyword tracking. Mondays were the most common peaks in press mentions of ‘greenwashing’ within the media. The highest peak occurred on 25th July. There was no one story on this date, but a collection of multiple news items around the same theme – companies being called out for ‘greenwashing’.

Deborah Meadan was covered by the BBC, showing the influence of celebrities on ‘greenwashing’ press coverage. She said:

“The climate change problem is here and now. People are increasingly waking up to the idea and this has big implications for businesses.

“People are joining the dots. We can’t assume we’ve got time to sort the planet any more. It was probably about six or seven years ago when I really woke up to the fact.”

(2/6) Media mentions of ‘greenwashing’ in August: 2,046

Daily view 1st-31st August

August shows a medium level of coverage of ‘greenwashing in the press, with higher than average mentions on the weekends. Peaks include Friday 4th, Thursday 10th, Tuesday 22nd, and Tuesday 29th.

On Friday 4th, the BBC reported on Greta Thunberg pulling out of Edinburgh Book Festival over greenwashing by one of the Festival’s primary investors, which has been supporting the Festival for almost two decades.

This story was covered a number of national publications and continued into the following week with the likes of The Guardian, Sky News, The Telegraph, and The Independent among those who also covered it.

Between 22nd and 24th, the primary media focus was on Shell and BP who hit the headlines (again) over further allegations of greenwashing. This was big news, with pretty much all the national media covering the story. A spokesperson for Greenpeace told The Independent:

“As the world endures unprecedented heatwaves, deadly floods and escalating storms, big oil clings to its destructive business model and continues to fuel the climate crisis.

“Their already inadequate decarbonisation plans are an empty shell; instead of providing desperately-needed clean energy, they feed us greenwashing garbage.

“Big oil’s unwillingness to implement real change is a crime against the climate and future generations.”

(3/6) Media mentions of ‘greenwashing’ in September: 2,345

Daily view 1st-30th September

There were two major stories that featured heavily in the national headlines this month. First there was the latest Government u-turn. This was the story about Rishi Sunak who was criticised for announcing a delay in banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by five years to 2035.

What amplified this story was the fact it came at a time when the UK recorded temperatures above 30 degrees for six consecutive days for the first time ever, and September went down as the joint warmest on record.

And then there was the news that Germany’s largest asset manager, Deutsche Bank’s DWS, was being fined $25 million to, as the FT described it, “settle charges brought by the US securities regulator over greenwashing allegations, the watchdog’s highest penalty related to environmental, social and governance criteria against an investment adviser.”

(4/6) Media mentions of ‘greenwashing’ in October: 2,380

Daily view 1st-31st October

October flatlined slightly when it came to media mentions of ‘greenwashing’ coverage compared to other months. The highest peak occurred on 17th October following an investigation launched by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) into Worcester Bosch over their greenwashing claims.

The suggestion was that the company marketed its “hydrogen-blend ready” home boilers as being environmentally friendly – that they can reduce a family home’s carbon footprint. They’re not, and they don’t.

The CMA commented:

“Businesses need to be clear about the environmental credentials of the products they’re selling. This is especially important for heating products like home boilers, which are an expensive and long-term purchase.

“We set out our concerns earlier this year about businesses marketing boilers as ‘hydrogen-blend’. We’ll now be scrutinising green claims from Worcester Bosch to see if they mislead shoppers.”

This story was picked up by several media outlets, including CityAM and the BBC.

Also making the headlines this month was the arrest of Greta Thunberg in London for blocking the entrance to a hotel hosting a major oil and gas industry conference attended by representatives from Shell, Total, Equinor, Saudi Aramco and other oil producers. She told reporters at the scene:

“The world is drowning in fossil fuels. Our hopes and dreams and lives are being washed away by a flood of greenwashing and lies.

“It has been clear for decades that the fossil fuel industries were well aware of the consequences of their business models, and yet they have done nothing.

“We cannot let this continue.”

The story was covered by multiple media outlets, including Sky News, Al Jazeera, CNN, and The Telegraph.

(5/6) Media mentions of ‘greenwashing’ in November: 2,535

Daily view 1st-30th November

November shows a lower level of coverage over the course of the month when compared to other months, but there is a significant spike in the final few days with the start of COP28, which started on 30th November.

In the three weeks before COP28, greenwashing was talked about in the context of major soft drinks brands. Coca-Cola, Danone, and Nestlé featured heavily in the media over claims that their bottles are “100% recyclable” or “100% recycled”. The Guardian ran a good piece on this, along with The Independent and BBC.

The European Commission fielded complaints made by consumer rights group Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs (BEUC) who argued that such claims are false because bottle lids in the EU cannot be made of recycled materials.

Two months previously, in September, the European parliament and council agreed on new advertising rules banning business and brands from using generic sustainability claims in their marketing such as “climate neutral”, “natural” and “eco” unless they can be supported backed with proof of superior environmental performance.

There was a sharp rise in media mentions of greenwashing on Tuesday 28th with the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) announcement that it will clamp down on investment fund greenwashing. Reuters stated:

“Britain’s financial watchdog will require all firms it regulates to stop greenwashing or making misleading climate-friendly claims on retail products from savings accounts to mortgages under a landmark rule coming into force in May next year [2024].”

In a statement, the FCA said:

“This rule allows us to challenge firms if we consider they are making misleading claims about their products or services and, if appropriate, take further action.”

This story was covered in a number of national publications, and when viewed with the previous months in mind seems to be a continued focus on investment funds in particular as greenwashers. CityAM, BusinessGreen, Which?, FT, and The Telegraph are among those who ran with the story.

(6/6) Media mentions of ‘greenwashing’ in December: 2,920

December saw peaks on the first two Mondays of the month, with Tuesday 12th showing the highest coverage of the greenwashing keyword tracking period. Coverage lessened as Christmas approached, as can be expected.

On 12th, it was announced that Unilever was to be investigated over greenwashing. This spurred national coverage by numerous publications in what was the highest number of times that greenwashing was mentioned in the media at any point during the last six months. And it is easy to see why.

Unliver found itself the subject of a CMA investigation over claims that some of its popular household products like Dove soap “may be overstating how green certain products are.”

The CMA stated:

“More and more people are trying to do their bit to help protect the environment, but we’re worried many are being misled by so-called ‘green’ products that aren’t what they seem.

“So far, the evidence we’ve seen has raised concerns about how Unilever presents certain products as environmentally friendly.

“We’ll be drilling down into these claims to see if they measure up. If we find they’re greenwashing, we’ll take action to make sure shoppers are protected.”

This was the latest in a series of such clampdowns by the regulator on businesses and brands who may be exaggerating their green credentials to seduce the growing band of concious consumers and, just as important, woo green investors.

The story found its way into most of the UK’s business pages, with Reuters, The Guardian, Evening Standard, CityAM, and CNN among them.

Closing words

Clearly PR has long been championing ‘honest’ communications. Greenwashing is nothing new, but it was the pandemic that provided the conditions for it to flourish.

Yet despite the very public backlash against those businesses and brands exposed for trying to pull the wool over the eyes of their customers, employees and investors, the number of incidences continue to rise.

Since 2020, Clearly PR has been checking the pulse of the market through polls and surveys – the results of which we share on our blog and with the media. Here are a few examples:

Moreover, we help those businesses and brands that are doing great things to better communicate them to their target audiences in a way that builds their reputation and mitigates any risk of greenwashing allegations being levied against them. You can see how we do that here.

Is it time to get your ESG communications clearly understood and ‘out there’? Email Paul MacKenzie-Cummins to get started. He’s at: paul@clearlypr.co.uk