Greenwashing and Sustainable business practices, what’s the difference?

Sustainable business practices are vital to protect, preserve, and even help save the planet. That’s why ethical businesses all over the world are doing their best to become more sustainable, and ethical consumers are buying from businesses with solid green credentials.

But there’s a problem. It’s very obvious that sustainability sells. So, a lot of businesses do their best to appear as green as possible without actually doing the hard work to fundamentally improve their business practices.

‘Greenwashing’ is a growing problem. What’s more, it’s a trap that you could fall into without realizing. It’s all too easy to build up your green credentials without acknowledging (or even understanding) the potential issues lurking behind your messaging.  

So, to help you avoid inadvertent greenwashing, here are some tips to help you practice what you preach and become the green, sustainable, and even regenerative business you aspire to be.


What is greenwashing?

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Greenwashing is all about spin. It involves working hard to persuade the public that a company’s products and practices are environmentally friendly when the truth may be very different.

Greenwashing is often used as a way to get all the benefits of being sustainable without actually expending the time, money, and effort needed to truly become so. A common greenwashing strategy is for a company to make a nominal change towards sustainability and launch a large PR campaign celebrating this.

From the outside, the PR around this change makes it seem as though the company is making a huge effort towards becoming greener and more sustainable. Consumers are impressed and support the company as a result. 

But, the reality is that the company has done the bare minimum for the purpose of gaining customers and media attention (rather than of helping the planet), when they are still, in fact, unsustainable in most areas of their operation.

Deliberate greenwashing is sadly very common, but there is a less cynical version of greenwashing which may be even more common. Inadvertent greenwashing happens when companies are rightfully proud of their sustainable ethics but may not realize that their pride in their green credentials don’t quite go as far as they think they do. 

A common example of this is when it comes to sourcing sustainable materials. You might select a supplier that says they only use responsibly and sustainably sourced materials, but then discover that this “responsibility” slowly diminishes as you track it back through the entire supply chain. Ultimately, discovering that your materials are a product of the same bad practices.  

How can you avoid inadvertent greenwashing? Let’s take a look:

Tips to avoid inadvertent greenwashing

1. Check everything and get certified

Don’t rely on facts and statistics if you haven’t got them from a reputable source. If you find an environmental statistic that paints your company in a positive light and you’re tempted to share it, make absolutely sure that it’s accurate first. Wherever possible, obtain verifiable certifications to back up your or your supplier’s claims.

Similarly, don’t just take a supplier or third-party’s word for it. Do your research and examine the entire life cycle of your product. 

2. Don’t pick and choose your stories

It’s very tempting to pick out the good bits of your environmental policy and brush the failures under the carpet. Don’t be tempted to do this. Celebrate your achievements by all means, but take note of where you’re falling short, acknowledge where you’re yet to make progress and make genuine efforts to improve.

You can even share your failures and attempts to improve with your customers if you want. This shows a true understanding of your environmental issues and a genuine wish to change for the better. People appreciate that level of integrity.

3. Be truly aware of your environmental impact

Environmental impacts are often hiding in plain sight. For example, your supply chain logistics may create a big carbon footprint, or you may be using unethical suppliers.

If you have Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software, you can use this to keep track of your information about all the materials and companies within your supply chain, the processes you use, your shrinkage, and more. This will make it easier to conduct periodical reviews and discover any shortcomings when it comes to sustainability.


Sustainable business practices you should adopt

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To avoid greenwashing and be a genuinely sustainable company, you need to adopt sustainable business practices. Here are a few ideas:

  • Develop eco-friendly products and services

One of the most obvious ways to become more sustainable is to develop eco-friendly products and services. 

How easy this is to do will vary depending on what your company makes or does. For example, it’s harder to develop an eco-friendly smartphone, as smartphone manufacturing relies on mining, which has a hefty environmental impact. In this case, it’s better to think about making sure your products are durable with replaceable parts to avoid unnecessary waste. 

On the other hand, if you’re a greeting card manufacturer, then it’s relatively easy to switch to locally sourced, recycled and recyclable materials without sacrificing quality.

Even if you think you can’t boost the sustainable credentials of your product, there may be ways you can improve sustainability in other ways. For example, you could seek ethical suppliers, encourage your manufacturers to use low environmental impact packaging, reduce the miles your materials have to travel, and even opt for sustainable business software solutions.


  • Educate employees on sustainable practices

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A lot of unsustainable practices happen in small ways on a daily basis. The problem is that these small violations add up to a big problem.

A great way to become more eco-friendly on a day-to-day basis is to educate your employees on sustainable practices. For example, you could:

    • Actively encourage recycling.
    • Promote ethical commuting through cycle-to-work schemes, carpooling initiatives, or paying for public transport options.
    • Educate on energy usage and encourage employees to save power by switching off unused computers rather than putting them in sleep mode, turning off printers at night, adjusting the temperature, going paperless, etc.
    • Celebrate sustainable initiatives - get into the competitive spirit for calendar moments such as Plastic Free July

    Educating employees on sustainable practices empowers them to work towards your sustainable goals. Even better, if you provide ways for your employees to be sustainable (for example, by providing bikes for commuting or switching to energy-efficient light bulbs), you can make progress towards your enviro goals.


    • Partner with like-minded organizations

    You are the company you keep. So be sure that your company only partners with like-minded organizations. There’s no use working hard to make your business practices as sustainable as possible if your key suppliers or associates have a terrible environmental record.

    Seek out partners who not only share your sustainable values but who are actively ethical in their practices and processes.

    Remember to be alert to greenwashing when seeking environmentally-friendly partner organizations. Greenwashing isn’t just used in customer-facing messaging. Companies also do it to other companies. So, be sure to investigate the truth behind any sustainability claims when deciding whether or not to partner with someone.


    • Launch customer education campaigns

    Free-to-use image sourced from Unsplash


    Customer education can make a big difference to your sustainability. Not only is it good to help add to the amount of sustainability information in the world, but it can also help your product be used sustainably.

    Let’s say, you have made a sustainable product  as environmentally friendly as you can possibly be with all your processes and practices. All of this will mean nothing if your customers are incorrectly disposing of them at their end-of-use cycle.

    Therefore, education about the end-of-use processes plays a pivotal role in shaping a more eco-conscious society and ensuring a sustainable future for generations to come.

    When customers are properly informed, they are empowered to make sustainable choices. This awareness not only extends the lifespan of products but also fosters a culture of responsible consumption.


    • Measure and report on your sustainability impact

    Measuring your sustainability impact is the best way to make sure that you’re heading in the right direction and to pick up on areas that need work. The second stage of this is to report on your findings.

    Reporting gives accountability. It’s one of the best ways to make sure that what you’re saying about your environmental impact is the truth, not greenwashing. If your reports fall short of the impression you’ve been giving, you have probably been guilty of greenwashing, and you need to rethink both your practices and your messaging.

    As we’ve mentioned above, ERP software is a great way to do this. You can use your ERP to check and monitor order processes, resources, systems, and more. This makes it much easier to see where you are succeeding and where there’s room for improvement. ERP software can also automate resource allocation, minimizing inefficiencies and wastage. 

    Bigger organizations that are spread across multiple locations can also greatly benefit from an ERP cloud-based solution. This will ensure everyone has access to the information they need and makes it easy for everyone to work together towards your sustainable goals. 


    Avoid greenwashing with truly sustainable business practices

    Greenwashing is everywhere. It’s hard to avoid as a customer and even harder to resist as an entrepreneur. But, that shouldn’t stop you from putting in a little effort and doing what you can. 

    Customers don’t like greenwashing. They feel lied to when the truth comes out (and it inevitably does!), and it makes them cynical. 

    More importantly, greenwashing also allows companies to continue to damage the environment without accountability. Given the state of the planet, time is beginning to run out.

    Instead, gain the right to wear your green credentials with pride; be transparent, honest, and genuine. Make your practices truly sustainable and eco-friendly in every way that you can and bring your customers on the journey with you.




    Lindsay Bushweller is a Senior Marketing Programs Manager at Sage with nearly 10 years of digital marketing and demand generation experience. She has a passion for customer experience and is committed to educating audiences with relevant insights that solve their toughest business challenges. 


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