Thought Leadership

The good, the bad and the greenwash: 7 newsworthy sustainability communications efforts from 2021

The good, the bad and the greenwash: 7 newsworthy sustainability communications efforts from 2021

In 2021, a year of Net Zero pledges, Glasgow’s COP26 and fresh anti-greenwashing regulation, demand for – and scrutiny over – eco-claims reached new levels. In fact, a recent study found that whilst almost half (45%) of UK marketers feel under pressure to communicate brands’ sustainability credentials, an even greater number (49%) report a fear of greenwashing.

The Provenance team has taken a look back at a year of sustainability communications campaigns, from examples of greenwashing to moments of commendable brand integrity. Read on as we distinguish the good, the bad and the greenwash.

1. Adidas found guilty over “50% recycled” Stan Smith sneakers

In September, Adidas was found guilty by the French Advertising Ethics Jury over a claim that a version of the Stan Smith sneaker was made from at least “50% recycled materials”. The claim was found to be misleading because in actual fact, only the upper part of the shoe was made from 50% recycled material, rather than the complete foot. The complainant also criticised the shoe’s “End plastic waste“ logo, arguing that buying shoes that aren’t fully recycled will not bring an end to plastic pollution.

What Adidas did well:

  • In defending the claim, Adidas were able to point to relevant, specific targets at a brand level: ‘by 2024, Adidas will have switched to 100% recycled polyester made from plastic intercepted on coastal areas of the oceans and plastic destined for landfills’.

What they could have done better:

  • In trying to oversimplify the eco-credentials of their shoes for a digestible marketing tagline, Adidas failed shoppers by giving them an inaccurate representation of the product’s impact.
  • Adidas should instead have stated the percentage of the whole product that was recycled. Failing that, they could have made it clear that the 50% claim referred only to a specific component.
  • Adidas ‘End Plastic Waste’ logo is a prime example of a brand applying suggestive green imagery to oversell their claims. The plastic in the shoes becomes unrecyclable, so in actual fact, Adidas are removing plastic from a waste stream where it could have been recycled multiple times.

2. Beauty brand Innisfree found out for ‘paper bottle’ deceit

Last year, South Korean cosmetics brand Innisfree launched a green-tea beauty product in what it labelled a "paper bottle", as part of a wider brand initiative to reduce plastic packaging. In April, a customer discovered that it was in fact simply a plastic bottle wrapped in paper, prompting social media outrage and an apology from the brand.

What Innisfree did well:

  • There was nothing to commend Innisfree's on-pack paper bottle claim.

What could have been better:

  • On a positive note, Innisfree claimed that the newer bottle used 51.8% less plastic than previous packaging. Launching the bottle with a ‘reduced plastic’ claim would have been a fair and effective approach.

3. Tony’s Chocolonely removed from ethical chocolate list

Back in February, Tony’s Chocolonely were removed from Slavefreechocolate.org’s list of ethical chocolate companies, because of their ties to Barry Callebaut, a chocolate producer accused of abuses in their supply chain. The removal was picked up by some media commentators as a lesson on the risks of being a ‘woke’ brand.

What Tony’s Chocolonely did well:

  • Tony’s responded to the media story with a timely blog post that was in equal parts honest, bold and grounded in facts (eg. “Last year we found 387 cases of illegal child labour and remediated 221”). They also talked about how engaging with suppliers with issues meant they could remediate those issues.
  • The brand’s ties to Barry Callebaut was not ultimately ‘news’. The brand had always been transparent about their choice to work with Barry Callebaut and the issues of illegal child labour in their supply chain.

What could have been better:

  • From their marketing campaigns to their impact reports and events, it’s clear that Tony’s is a mission-led brand. But we think they’re missing an opportunity to make their supply chain transparency accessible at a product level, where it’s more tangible for the shopper.

4. Ace & Tate go on the honesty offensive

In September, Ace & Tate struck a tone of brutal honesty in a blog post and accompanying Responsibility Report, which laid bare a number of mistakes they’d made on their sustainability journey. The article was cited by Vogue Business as a prime example of a ‘new look sustainable marketing’ based on brutal honesty.

What Ace & Tate did well:

  • Ace & Tate understood that being a climate leader means enabling others in your industry to follow your examples – and that means learning from your mistakes as well as your successes.
  • The eyewear brand didn’t just acknowledge their shortcomings – they also shared practical remedial solutions. Whilst admitting that they’d set an unrealistic carbon target, they also shared updated, more realistic targets, guided by the SBTI.

What could have been better:

  • Ace & Tate are missing an opportunity to communicate their sustainability progress with the everyday shopper – they currently share the carbon impact of each product online, but they could also be communicating on their social impact and sourcing.

5. Beauty Bay expands Beauty Conscious shopping edit

UK beauty retailer Beauty Bay has over 12,000 products on its ecommerce site and boasts new launches every week. This year saw the expansion of its Beauty Conscious edit to include 3,409 ‘more eco-friendly’ products, which shoppers can filter by the following credentials: Vegan & Cruelty Free; Ocean & Reef Safe; Organic; Biodegradable and Recyclable.

What Beauty Bay did well:

  • It’s great to see Beauty Bay responding to shoppers’ demands to be able to shop in line with a selection of key values, covering ingredients and packaging.

What could have been better:

  • We think the Beauty Conscious edit could be much more empowering for shoppers if supported by easy-to-access proof and some explanation of the filters. After all, the Pull Agency recently found that 69% of consumers are confused by or don’t believe claims made by health & beauty brands about sustainability.
  • It’s not clear which parts of the products labelled ‘biodegradable’ are indeed biodegradable (ie. is it the packaging or product components?). To help shoppers truly minimise waste, Beauty Bay should surface supporting disposal instructions with each product.   
  • The filters are a good start, but they don’t currently support shoppers who want to buy products which support minority ownership, better working conditions, carbon reduction etc.

6. Alpro pays the price for ambiguous ‘good for the planet’ claim

A bus ad for Alpro’s Almond drink was reported to the Advertising Standards agency in late 2020 on the grounds that its “GOOD FOR THE PLANET” claim was misleading and could not be substantiated. In spite of Alpro’s defence, the complaint was upheld in September 2021 for breaching the ASA’s rules.

What Alpro did well:

  • In response to the claim, Alpro made a clear case for why plant-based products broadly generate less carbon than their dairy equivalents and were able to point to lifecycle assessments for their own products.

What could have been better:

  • Alpro’s claim lacked clear context. It was not clear that the claim referred to plant-based products having a lower environmental impact than dairy-based products.
  • Alpro should have been more specific with their claims, focusing on carbon emissions, water use or biodiversity protection. 
  • The product analysis that Alpro shared in defence of the claim focused on carbon emissions in the farming and production stages but excluded the environmental impacts of transport, packaging and retail.

7. Danish Crown caught out for ‘climate controlled pigs’ claim

In October, Danish Crown was forced to back-track on its claim of ‘climate-controlled pigs’: a self-accredited eco-label. The move came after Danish supermarkets COOP, Lidl and Aldi announced that they would not sell ‘climate-controlled pig’ products, following public pressure from Greenpeace.

What Danish Crown did well:

  • The pork producer is aiming to reduce GHGs by 50% by 2030 (from a 2005 baseline) and to make its meat production climate neutral by 2050. They have also joined the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTI). 
  • We agreed with the brand’s communications director when they said, “we will lose the climate fight if large companies are not allowed to take part in it and communicate about their efforts.”

What could have been better:

  • ‘Climate-controlled pigs’ was a highly ambiguous and misleading tagline. The intended meaning was that ‘the farmers who supply pigs to us are actively working to lower their CO2 footprint.’ A ‘Reducing Carbon’ claim focusing on farm level initiatives would have been a much clearer approach.
  • As Europe’s largest pork producer, Danish Crown could have responded to the media story with more humility or pragmatism about its environmental impact. 

About Provenance

Provenance uses technology to help consumer goods brands make credible sustainability claims, supported by evidence or independent verification:

  • Visit the Provenance Framework, a rulebook of 50+ social and environmental impact claims, to explore how best to evidence and communicate impact claims, from ‘Carbon measured’ to ‘Fully recyclable packaging’. 
  • To find out how our software can help your brand deliver engaging impact transparency online or off-pack, click here to speak with our team.
The Provenance Team

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