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  • Lara Engel

Greenwashing: the media’s power over business reputation

Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq

In today's climate-conscious society, sustainable marketing campaigns are at the forefront of business agendas. Through digital platforms, companies communicate their sustainable goals and practices to the public to boost profits by attaining an environmentally-friendly reputation. However, ‘greenwashing’ has become a widespread problem in recent years as several companies are getting into trouble over making false claims about their sustainability practices. Greenwashing has highlighted the power the media has to shape a business’s reputation.

Shell, a multinational oil and gas company, epitomises this phenomenon: the company is responsible for 1-2% of global CO2 emissions every year and according to their website, they attempt to mitigate their accountability by supporting the Paris Agreement, which aims for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Shell claims that the company plans to invest $100 million a year in nature-based projects, such as tree planting. This investment is plastered all over their advertisements as they strive to obtain a positive reputation for their involvement in fighting climate change. Yet, at the same time, Shell is looking for new sources of oil and gas and plans to grow its business by 20%. So, a closer examination of Shell’s business strategies suggests that the company is a culprit of greenwashing. This has been highly publicised in the media. For example, The Guardian headlined an article ‘Shell’s actual spending on renewables is a fraction of what it claims’. This greenwashing accusation has had huge implications for the company’s reputation and has led to public distrust as consumers start to question whether Shell is actually motivated to be sustainable, or if this just a marketing tactic to increase revenue.

The constant scrutiny that businesses face from the public and media has resulted in ‘greenhushing’, a phenomenon which refers to businesses refraining from reporting any sustainability objectives in fear of getting caught for making misleading claims. This absence of communication between the business and the consumer has negative implications for both investment and consumer demand as key stakeholders are left in the dark about the business’ practices and goals. For instance, many fashion brands including H&M and ASOS have dropped their sustainable clothing lines following investigations from marketing authorities about the integrity of their sustainability practices. This can lead to a deterioration in consumer confidence as stakeholders, who care about the environment, struggle to make environmentally-conscious purchasing decisions due to the inadequate evidence about whether the business is taking responsibility for their impact on the climate.

So, I am suggesting that the media is a powerful tool in building and destroying consumer trust. Businesses need to present their accountability towards climate change in a clear and honest manner, so that the business does not conceal its practices, and instead develops a loyal, open, and positive relationship between itself and the consumer. It is evident that the media plays a key role within shaping business reputation, and subsequently, success. Therefore, transparent, and authentic communication of sustainable practices and objectives is critical to avoid both greenwashing and greenhushing.

It is crucial that businesses strike a balance between showing their motivation to engage in sustainable practices, whilst recognising that in some contexts, this may not be possible due to financial barriers and business growth.

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