Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
This Earth Day, we’ll be bombarded by brand messages in support of our planet.
While many of these campaigns are well-intentioned, sustainability claims by brands are largely overstated. Research in Europe suggests that more than 40% of green claims from brands were exaggerated.
Meanwhile, customers are more discerning than ever when it comes to brand messaging and they’re likely to pick up on discrepancies. And performative environmental marketing, or “greenwashing,” can have negative impacts on relationships with consumers. In fact, when customers perceive a gap between green messaging and action, customer satisfaction scores decrease.
If that’s not reason enough to be thoughtful about your long-term sustainability initiatives, mitigating the impacts of greenwashing is actually facing legislation in some parts of the world, with fines on the horizon for companies who don’t live up to environmental commitments.
Here are some tips to create long-lasting green initiatives within your brands that you can be proud to promote on Earth Day and beyond.
1. Define sustainability
Sustainability is a nebulous term, and different individuals and brands may have different thoughts about how to define it. For example, I take a broad view of sustainability to include actions that build a better and more connected world. This reaches beyond environmental initiatives to create a culture where environmental and energy concerns can be debated, disparate opinions can be considered and progress can be made. Thus, for me, sustainable initiatives start with the way we speak to each other about the problems facing our world.
Your organization might take a different approach to sustainability, perhaps wanting to offset carbon emissions or being devoted to clean packaging. Whatever your definition, it’s imperative to name it so that you can use it as a beacon for your sustainability goals.
2. Actually analyze your environmental impact
Don’t let your environmental initiatives start in your marketing department. As with all virtue signals, it’s imperative that brands look inside their own organization before stating a value externally. Put another way, before crafting a green marketing campaign, make sure the actions of your business can back it up.
When it comes to environmental sustainability, this means looking at all aspects of your operations, including everything from your packaging to your utilities and partnerships to assess your environmental impact.
Zoom out and look at your industry, as well. How does your industry impact the planet? Can you be a model for change?
3. Make a plan
Once you look at potential waste within your organization and industry, make a plan to improve the areas you can control. Make sure your sustainability goals are specific and measurable. For example, you might decide that you’re going to reduce your reliance on partners that have negative impacts on the environment, switch to more green packaging, or reduce waste within your walls. Whatever your goals, make sure they are measurable and that you have appropriate tracking mechanisms in place to assess progress.
Aligning employee incentives, like perks and bonuses, with sustainability progress can help employees feel valued for making green thinking part of the culture.
If you’re going to be public with environmental campaigns, you should first cultivate a pro-Earth sentiment inside your walls. Develop and share initiatives with employees. Adding sustainability to your organization’s named initiatives and cultivating an organizational culture that supports it will ensure your green marketing efforts ring sincere.
Moreover, when employees are stakeholders in your green initiatives, they’ll be the first to reinforce your planet-friendly brand messaging. Employees are powerful brand advocates.
4. Report on progress
Whether you track and report your progress internally with your sustainability stakeholders or externally to your board and customers is up to you (and in some cases, your fiduciary obligation), but the important thing is that you track progress against KPIs. What’s measured tends to improve, and this is where the specificity of your objectives becomes important.
For example, if you’ve decided to reduce operational waste, you’ll also need to understand how you’re going to track that. There are software applications that assess organizational sustainability, or you can create systems within your own business. Either way, ensure that you have a baseline and regular intervals to determine progress.
Remember to give yourself time to change long-standing practices. While environmental impact deserves some urgency, it’s important to be realistic about the results that you can achieve so that success can be realized and progress can continue.
5. Now you can focus on marketing
After you’ve cultivated a pro-environment brand inside of your organization, you can begin to plan external campaigns.
As a bonus, you can use your internal initiatives as a jumping-off point. It will signal your genuine care for the environment if you can tap into the internal sustainability culture that you’ve created.
Share case studies on how you’ve achieved progress to add value to the business community as a whole or build a campaign around employee environmental initiatives. When it’s obvious that you’ve done the work internally, your marketing efforts will resonate with audiences authentically and you’ll become a beacon for how organizations ought to behave.
Maintaining the habitability of our shared planet is one of the defining issues of our time and organizations are powerful stewards of change. While celebrating Earth Day serves as an important reminder of our responsibility to our Earth and to each other, a commitment to improving our planet requires action every day.