Storytelling is not Greenwashing

by Feb 22, 2023

Shelton Stat of the Week

60% of people in America say a company’s involvement in social issues or its nonprofit partnerships has a moderate to very strong impact on their purchase intent.
Eco Pulse®, 2020

I’m fresh off of this year’s GreenBiz conference and their first ever Comms Summit. It’s worth noting that despite all the media headlines, pursuit of ESG goals and strategies is alive and well – case in point, GreenBiz played host to a sold-out crowd of 2,500 people.

At the Comms Summit, I highlighted one of the more vexing findings from our recent (and free) Buzz on Buzzwords report: that people in America pretty well understand the language of recycling (because that’s the language we’ve all given them for the last 40 years) and really don’t understand the language of climate (as in low carbon footprint, carbon neutral and net zero). The point of my talk was to fire up the folks in the room to change that. My arguments:

  • As I’ve noted here recently, companies deserve to get credit for their hard and expensive work in making carbon neutrality happen.
  • And continuing to ONLY talk to people in America about recycling is like a doctor ONLY talking to a cancer patient about taking vitamins. Sure, vitamins will help – as does recycling. But leaving out all the other treatment options is what we might call malpractice. And only talking about recycling is what we should call greenwashing.

That’s because it sets up a false sense of security – it’s a false promise. The message is, “as long as we all recycle, the planet will be okay!” And that’s not true. We will indeed reduce some greenhouse gas emissions by not landfilling items that can be recycled. But we can’t recycle our way to carbon neutrality. We all have to change the way we do things, from how and how much we drive, to how we power our homes and buildings, what we eat, how we use water and how we consume.

So brands, companies and employers should tell that story. And as they do, they should avoid getting caught in the notion that “story” means “fibbing.” Or, as it’s known in our industry, “greenwashing.”

Solitaire Townsend from Futerra went straight at this notion at the Comms Summit with a stat that instantly resonated with me: 60% of how we communicate with one another is through stories. Think about it. When you call a friend or sit down to dinner with your family, you will often say something like, “let me tell you what happened to me!” and then you proceed to tell a story. Now that I’ve said it, you won’t be able to not see it. We communicate in stories All. The. Time.

So you, your company and your brands can, and should, do exactly that: tell stories of what you’re doing for the planet. And by “stories,” I mean True Stories. Tell your stakeholders what you’re doing and tell it in a heart-felt way. You can absolutely use some stats as proof points, but hook the heart first, then the head.

And the next time someone in your organization says, “we can’t call our communication ‘storytelling;’ it will sound like we’re making up a fairy tale and greenwashing,” just say, “let me tell you a story about this year’s GreenBiz Comms Summit…”

News of the Week
Get your ESG story straight: A sustainability communication starter kit

ESG Next: An Interview with IBM’s Justina Nixon-Saintil

Having a foundational messaging framework is crucial to telling your ESG story. This NationSwell article covers a discussion with IBM’s Vice President and Chief Impact Officer on the importance of their framework to growing their story.

Read more…

Domino’s bolts to future of pizza delivery by deal harnessing 800 EVs

What is Greenwashing?
The National Resource Defense Council

Greenwashing gets thrown around a lot these days. When telling your ESG story, it’s important to be truthful and clear. This National Resource Defense Council article discusses the nuances of greenwashing and the impacts from misleading or unclear sustainability claims.

Read more…

Buzz On Buzzwords

Our latest research shows that Americans are becoming more engaged when it comes to sustainability; at the same time, their skepticism around certain words and phrases is growing. This means that for brands to connect with their ideal audience, build trust and remain competitive, attention to language is critical.

Find out what Americans think about sustainability, what different “green” words mean to them and how they interpret and respond to the jargon you may be using.

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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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