Greenwashing: What is it & how can coffee brands avoid it?

Kahwei Yoong
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July 14, 2021
greenwashing coffee

“Greenwashing” is a term levelled at companies across every industry – but what is it and how can specialty roasters avoid falling into the same trap?


In case you hadn’t noticed, environmental sustainability is all the rage. It’s become the dominant subject of documentaries, articles, books, and news outlets. It’s sparked protests, marches, festivals, and international conferences. It’s entered conversations and debates between people from all around the world, whether sat in government chambers or around dining room tables.

Consumer behaviour has changed, too. According to a recent survey by Deloitte, one in three consumers claim to have stopped buying from certain brands due to sustainability-related concerns, while more than 60% say they have cut down their use of single plastic goods.

Naturally, many companies have started to incorporate sustainability messages into their branding in an attempt to appeal to these changing attitudes – and most have seen positive results. One study by NYU Stern Centre for Sustainable Business found that products marketed as sustainable grew 5.6 times faster than conventionally marketed products.

Yet while most changes are well-intentioned, accusations of “greenwashing” – a disingenuous commitment to sustainability in an attempt to reap the benefits – have become increasingly widespread.

what is greenwashing
Greenwashing has become a widespread problem found in almost every industry

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing refers to a practice in which organisations make unsubstantiated or exaggerated claims to portray an environmentally-friendly image. This is often in an attempt to win over consumers, divert attention, or improve its public standing.

It was coined by prominent environmentalist Jay Westerveld in a 1986 essay that criticised the implementation of reusable towels in the hotel industry. He saw that hotels were marketing their reusable towels as part of an environmental conservation effort, when, in reality, it was simply to save costs.

Greenwashing occurs in almost every industry by companies looking to benefit from an environmentally friendly image without making any genuine change. 

One of the most famous examples is US oil titan Chevron, which launched a series of adverts in the mid 1980s to promote its dedication to the environment, while actively violating the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

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A research paper published in the Environmental Sciences Europe, suggests there are two major types of greenwashing: claim greenwashing and executional greenwashing. 

Claim greenwashing refers to the use of textual statements to explicitly or implicitly signal its environmental friendliness. Environmental marketing agency Terrachoice identifies “seven sins of claim greenwashing”, which include vagueness, hidden trade-offs, lack of proof, and irrelevance. 

“Executional greenwashing”, on the other hand, involves the use of visual cues such as imagery or colour to promote perceptions of greenness in advertising strategy. For example, using elements which are closely related to nature like the colour blue and green, or natural landscape imagery such as mountains and forests.

woman researching coffee on laptop
If discovered, greenwashing can damage a brand’s public image and lose consumer trust

The impact of greenwashing on your brand

The consensus on greenwashing is that it is an unethical and dishonest practice that companies should avoid at all cost.

While it may work for a period of time, the consequences when discovered can be catastrophic, particularly in the age of social media. In recent years, a number of brands have been “cancelled” after their environmental claims were revealed to be false or exaggerated across platforms such as Twitter and Instagram.

Indeed, research indicates that, when discovered, greenwashing negatively affects attitudes and behavioural intentions towards the offending brand or organisation. Confusion around environmental claims provokes a loss of trust, which leads consumers to seek alternatives. This can hit sales and often takes brands a long time to recover.

“81% of people believe businesses have a responsibility to be transparent when posting on social media.”

The importance of corporate transparency, and trust between brands and consumers has risen over the last few years. A survey of US consumers shows that 82% say they will continue to use a brand they trust even if another brand becomes popular or “trendy”. 

Additionally, 81% of people believe businesses have a responsibility to be transparent when posting on social media, a higher standard than they set for family, friends, or themselves. This is particularly true of younger generations, such as millennials and Gen Z, who value these qualities more highly than their predecessors.

If brands want to retain the loyalty of these consumers, they must ensure they avoid any environmental claims that could be at odds with their business practices.

sustainable coffee packaging
Sustainability certifications on packaging can help showcase a genuine commitment to the environment

Greenwashing in coffee: How can roasters avoid it?

Greenwashing in the coffee industry is widespread. One of the most common examples is the continual target setting for single-use plastic bans. Typically, a company will send out a press release in which it states its intention to do away with all single-use plastics by a certain date.

Not only does this put the company in the public eye, it presents an image of sustainability, which it hopes will encourage sales. However, when the date finally looms and the company realises it isn’t anywhere close to achieving its target, it will announce a new date and some small changes, with the hope that consumers have forgotten the previous target.

Starbucks did precisely this in 2019 when it changed its previous commitment to make 100% of its takeaway cups recyclable or reusable, to instead “double the recycled content, recyclability, compostability, and reusability of its cups and packaging by 2022.

“Sustainability certifications on packaging will showcase a tangible commitment to the environment.”

To prevent greenwashing, it’s important for brands to be transparent, honest, and truthful about their commitment towards sustainability. For example, outdoor clothing brand Patagonia openly admits its carbon footprint, while offering transparency about its efforts to reduce waste and support environmental activism.

In 2015, sustainability communication agency, Futerra released a list of marketing tactics that brands should avoid to prevent being perceived as greenwashing. These include “fluffy” language, misleading pictures, irrelevant claims, and outright lying.

Having the evidence to back up sustainability claims will also help prevent greenwashing. Sustainability certifications on packaging, such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and OK compost, will showcase a tangible commitment to the environment.

Similarly, the inclusion of scannable QR codes have become an increasingly popular way of improving transparency for consumers. Not only do they take up little room on coffee bags, they allow consumers to discover more information about the roastery and the coffee at a time that suits them.

recyclable coffee packaging
MTPak Coffee’s packaging options include low-VOC water-based inks and recyclable degassing valves

At MTPak Coffee, our sustainable packaging options can help to lower your carbon footprint and demonstrate a genuine commitment to the environment.

We carry three key sustainable certificates for recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable coffee bags. We also use low-VOC water-based inks, which are easy to remove for recycling. Our recyclable degassing valves are BPA free.

For more information on our sustainable packaging, contact our team.

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Greenwashing: What is it & how can coffee brands avoid it?

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