Responsible communications: How can we combat greenwashing?

It’s bad for companies, bad for consumers and bad for the planet. There’s nothing good about greenwashing. But for companies, including those in the construction sector, fighting the temptation isn’t so easy. It means constantly striving for honesty. So, what good practices can you adopt to ensure you are communicating responsibly?

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According to poet Pierre Reverdy, “there is no love; there are only proofs of love.” It’s pretty much the same when it comes to environmental commitment: only actions count. Lots of companies promise the world when it comes to sustainable development in an attempt to make their image greener. But how can we distinguish fact from fiction amid this avalanche of communications?

The first step is to define greenwashing. Greenwashing is when a company employs misleading marketing or communications practices in order to appear sustainable and environmentally friendly when in fact this is not the case. 

 

The many temptations of greenwashing

 

“There are several types of greenwashing, from using vague terms with no tangible evidence to advertising campaigns showcasing minor initiatives that make it seem like the company is much more committed than it really is,” explains Assaël Adary, founder of research and consultancy firm Occurrence. “These initiatives can have several aims: to improve brand image, gain a competitive advantage or meet customer expectations,” he adds.

les 9 piliers du greenwashing EN
The nine forms of greenwashing, taken from Saint-Gobain Communication Guidelines

 

Although greenwashing may be tempting, with the rise of CSR policies it is a risky practice today. From a loss of trust among consumers and employees to legal sanctions and a damaged reputation, greenwashing can be costly, potentially putting the viability of the whole company in danger. The proposal for a Green Claims Directive adopted by the European Commission in March 2023 stipulates that companies committing greenwashing can be banned from public tenders, have revenue confiscated and be forced to pay a fine equal to at least 4% of their annual turnover. So how can companies communicate more responsibly?

 

Fact-checking ESG criteria

 

Being responsible across the board

When it comes to words, sustainability messaging must avoid using generic terms such as “green” or “natural” as they are too vague. Any claims made must be backed up with tangible, third-party-verified evidence, with particular care taken over the choice of visuals. No more pictures of green forests to advertise your services!

Companies must tread particularly carefully in their communications about carbon, a subject area where the risk of greenwashing is particularly high. Accuracy, clarity and care are essential. The language companies use when promoting a manufacturing process, service or product must be subject to strict checks. 

visuel story greenwashing

So, the phrase “zero-carbon product” is out, because all products contain carbon. But you can promote “zero-carbon manufacturing. For example, Saint-Gobain achieved zero-carbon manufacturing on Scopes 1 and 2 in Aniche in 2022 by using renewable energy and recycled glass.

 

 

From storytelling to datatelling

 

These trials led to the creation of flat ORAÉ® glass, which today has a carbon footprint that is 42% smaller than the average European value of the equivalent Saint-Gobain glass solutions. And of course, to be able to claim these figures, Saint-Gobain conducted a detailed analysis and obtained third-party validation. 

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Habitat 7 (Sweden) developed with ORAÉ® glazing
 

 

Objective certification is another key tool for combatting greenwashing. Some countries, like France with its Climate and Resilience Act, require companies to back up their claims with numbers and evidence. In Europe, the draft Green Claims Directive will require organizations to provide tangible proof, again validated by a third party, for the environmental claims they make in their communications or advertisements, paving the way for fully transparent communications.

That’s the approach Saint-Gobain took proactively with the EPDs (Environmental Product Declaration) and their French equivalent the FDES (Environment and Health Declaration Datasheet). These declarations provide information about the environmental impact of a product or service over its entire life cycle and are always audited by a third party. They guarantee transparent, objective and verified information, and the Group has to date published them for 2,600 of its products and services.

According to Assaël Adary, “we have moved on from the era of storytelling to the era of datatelling, which commits companies to implementing true traceability throughout their value chain.” It gives them a wealth of particularly useful resources for creating environmental certification dossiers, such as the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) or BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) certifications.  

 

Sustainable construction: what does it actually mean ?

 

All this data is being more heavily scrutinized by experienced civil society observers, investors, and inspection bodies, but also by companies looking for partners with CSR standards as high as their own.

In addition to choosing its words carefully and ensuring its figures are robust, Saint-Gobain wants to get all its employees involved in combating greenwashing. That is why the Group set out internal guidelines for communicating about more sustainable solutions and to promote the use of best practices. The guidelines provide golden rules, detailed examples and practical tools for all employees. They aim to raise awareness about the strategic nature of these issues so that together we can design a better world. As Assaël Adary puts it: “responsible communication is all about showing people what is possible and how these solutions are both attractive and help contribute to the environmental transition.”  

Photos credits : Bosko Markovic / AndreyPopov / Krook & Tjäder