Vanessa Liell is a partner at corporate advisory firm Orizontas and former CEO and co-founder of Herd MSL. In this guest post, Liell says that in the light of the ACCC’s sweep and impending crackdown on unsubstantiated sustainability claims, it is a wake-up call for the marketing and advertising industries…
The ACCC has commenced a sweep on companies which claim – without evidence – their products are environmentally sustainable. This is good news for consumers and a needed warning for all who work in the advertising and marketing industry.
Advertisers know you can’t claim a soft drink is ‘sugar free’ unless it is. If it’s not you expect the legal consequences. ‘Sustainable’ products should be no different. Greenwashing means exploiting the public’s desire for environmental assurances without matching actions. It’s an exercise which ultimately sees the same public throw up their hands and turn cynical at all the empty words.
What does this crackdown mean for those of us who work in marketing and advertising? It means we need to get serious about our skills and capabilities in this area. We also need to be prepared to be challenged – by regulators and activists alike – and be sure our counsel and campaigns stand up.
It means investing in the science-minded specialists who understand the data behind environmental claims, and policy-minded specialists who understand the regulatory framework they are operating within.
ACCC Deputy Chair Ms Delia Rickard, sees part of the Commission’s role is ensuring ‘Information asymmetry’ within the marketplace isn’t abused. As she puts it, “consumers are always going to have less information about the development of a product or service. For example,” she says, “a product may be labelled as being made from recycled materials. Consumers can’t independently verify where the materials come from, or whether the business audits their suppliers, or if they do, how robust that audit is.”
Meeting this challenge also requires local market understanding. The policy and regulatory changes in Australia may be in the same direction as those taking place in Europe or the US, but the differences are as critical as the similarities.
There are grey areas in the definitions of terms such as ‘biodegradable’ ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘fully recyclable.’ It is critical to understand the regulatory definition at work here. What does the term mean here?
Supply chains also present a specific challenge. What are the ‘green’ credentials of energy used in producing components? While we’re collectively aiming for ‘Net Zero’ the benchmarks set in Brussels may not be the ones applied by Australian regulators.
Marketers and advertisers are not expected to become sustainability experts, but we do need the capability to advise our clients confidently and robustly.
Environmental sustainability is not a phase or a marketing opportunity. The extreme weather disasters in the past few years alone are dramatic and real, and the public understands that. The fact that climate was so high on the agenda at the last election is evidence enough that people and energised and demand a response.
It’s not just politicians who need to keep an eye on a restive public. The spread of ‘name and shame’ campaigns against brands will only accelerate if companies indulge in false claims of sustainability.
Australian companies need to be aware that what they say about their environmental practices must bear scrutiny, and as advertisers and marketers, we need to ensure we have the capacity to assess the claims the brands we work with make before other interested parties do it for them.
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