Across a range of industries, there are lots of initiatives and projects in place to promote sustainability, and show how it can bring about success. But not everything is as it seems: there is a fine line between green action and greenwashing. And it is not always easy to determine whether you are really supporting the idea that’s being talked up.

The power of green

Many companies have now realised that acting sustainably and initiating socially responsible projects goes down extremely well with consumers. Our attitudes to our own health and well being, as well as society’s take on protecting the environment, have shifted fundamentally over the past few decades. It’s no secret that more and more people are taking an active interest in the planet and sustainable living.

So businesses are compelled to respond to all this social soul searching.

A study by Ernst & Young on sustainable business management practices revealed the importance of the subject for Germany’s fabled Mittelstand: 79% of respondents agreed that sustainable business management was either “important” or “very important”. And consumer sentiment painted a similar picture – compared with just five years ago, when not even half of consumers indicated a preference for sustainable products and services.  The move towards sustainability is undeniable and clearly consumers are increasingly well informed these days.

Increasingly, “do good and talk about it” is the watchword. It is definitely worth a company’s while to show off its green credentials and get customers on board. Businesses whose values align with those of consumers are more likely to gain traction than brands or competitors that shoppers struggle to identify with. And this is an important point, as power is very much in the customer’s hands. If there are calls for greater social responsibility and sustainability, then you can be sure that it will follow at some point – across the board. Studies have proven that purchasing decisions are no longer solely guided by price, but depend on social considerations, too. Companies that maintain a green corporate philosophy are rewarded as they are seen as being in step with the times and responding to the needs of younger people in particular. Above all, it is Generation Y that prioritises sustainable resource management. Companies can use sustainability projects to generate greater customer loyalty while also helping to set themselves apart from the competition.

The green side of our conscience drives us forward and has the potential to change things: consumers are always prepared to dig a little deeper when it comes to the sustainable option.

About that eco-friendly image

Especially in the fashion industry, topics such as workers’ rights, environmental protection and preserving resources are gaining ground. The 2016  Slow Fashion Monitor conducted by the Dr. Grieger & Cie. market research institute showed that six in ten respondents were prepared to pay more for clothing if it conformed to verifiable quality criteria.

In  response, major chains such as H&M are focusing more and more on sustainable production methods: promoting the cultivation of organic cotton, selling clothing made of plant-based materials in selected shops, giving old fishing nets and nylon a new lease of life, as well as rewarding clothing recycling with vouchers all show just how much consumers want to shop with a clear conscience when it comes to fashion. This industry has found itself increasingly under fire for its “fast” practices and poor working conditions. But according to the experts at Greenpeace, a lot of these promotions are not quite as sustainable as they might seem at first glance. The term “organic” tells us little about how these eco-friendly fibres are subsequently processed and what conditions the people who turn them into clothing work under. There is a distinct lack of transparency. At the same time that adherence to strict standards is shouted from the rooftops, little is said about manufacturing conditions.

Fashion company Zalando is another to have pricked up its ears at consumers’ calls for sustainable goods. It has now set up a second-hand division, creating space for the rapidly growing trend for pre-owned fashion to flourish. Millennials lead the charge when it comes to a more conscious approach to buying clothes and conserving resources. Young consumers are definitely paying more attention to the planet when making fashion choices. And it’s a trend that just keeps on going.

Giants such as Google are also flying the sustainability flag.  This would make it the first major company in the world to buy and promote clean energy on this scale.

An ethically unimpeachable and resource-friendly corporate philosophy is essential these days and comes across well with consumers. This, in turn, is good for the bottom line and plays a key role in fostering customer loyalty. But not everything with a green sheen really is green all the way through. More and more accusations of greenwashing, unfair production conditions and environmental skulduggery are coming to light. And this definitely undermines companies’ credibility. Unless a business commits to it fully, a green image quickly starts to fade.

Greenwashing or green action

The extent to which green projects make commercial sense or have the capacity to deliver genuine social change is hard to gauge and tough to measure. It is easy for companies to launch supposedly sustainable projects in order to score points with customers. But the problem is that these projects and campaigns are initiated voluntarily, leaving businesses free to self-assess using their own arbitrary standards, given the absence of an established legal framework. This issue has come into particularly sharp focus in the advertising industry. In Germany, words like “natural” and “sustainable” can be used without any onus placed on companies to explain the true meaning behind them. Which leaves the door wide open to interpretation.

Consumers looking to do the right thing and shop sustainably are also left swinging in the wind. In many cases, it is nigh-on impossible to ascertain what’s really going on with each individual project. Even so, things are moving in the right direction. Companies will find it increasingly difficult not to commit to sustainability. And as more and more projects are launched, little by little they will do their bit in holding businesses to account.