There was a time in which saying something about the environment was better than saying nothing. That moment is over. Now, before communicating, it is essential to be able to support one's green claims with scientific data in the face of increasingly serious and informed criticism and analysis

* Michela Melis, researcher at Green Bocconi, senior consultant Ergo, co-author of Beyond Greenwashing (in Italian only), Edizioni Ambiente, 2020

For years we have been talking about greenwashing: misleading, scientifically incorrect or unverifiable information about one's environmental commitment communicated urbi et orbi to obtain a commercial advantage or brand positioning. Never before, however, is resorting to this kind of strategy a truly dangerous choice, capable of damaging a company. But the moment has finally come: greenwashing is no longer a viable path for anyone.

Before understanding the reason for this step, however, it is good to clarify what greenwashing is.

Greenwashing is everything the company does to lead the consumer to think that a product has a reduced environmental impact without being able to provide supporting scientific data. It is greenwashing to imply that a natural ingredient is necessarily less impactful than a synthetic one, to resort in a simplistic way and without explanation to terms and suffixes such as bio, zero impact, eco, green, to use graphics that imitate official certifications. In general: making claims unsupported by verified and verifiable facts.

Many companies have resorted to such expedients: sometimes purposely but often only out of ignorance, superficiality or unawareness, acting under the pressure of competitors already in the field on issues related to sustainability.

The temptation to resort to these tricks is still alive - especially in companies that are approaching green communication for the first time and that often do not have a competent and dedicated communication department - but giving in to them would be a serious mistake for various reasons.

The first is that if until a few years ago it was not easy to find out what to say and how to say it, in terms of the environment, today there are tools to do it. Each company can, for example using Life Cycle Assessment tools, quantify the actual environmental impact throughout the life cycle of its products. And, only after and in the presence of real data, decide what, how and where to communicate.

Read IDJ dedicated to Life Cycle

This is the only real way to get on track in the arena of communication on environmental impact. Because it is now confirmed by investigations and surveys by the European Commission that, in a context in which everyone makes use of green claims, the lack of scientific data to support them generates immediate skepticism, confusion and rejection by consumers towards brands.

To this risk, already enormous because it is amplified through social media, is added that of penalties. The empty green claims ruin the market and nullify the effective environmental commitment of the many who are seriously moving in this direction and for this reason they have entered the crosshairs of public authorities (such as the Guarantor of competition on the market, AGCM) and private ( such as the Institute for Advertising Self-Regulation, IAP). While the European Union is working to arrive at a single method for calculating the environmental impact of products throughout the continent with the aim of clearing the field of too many labels and certifications that end up confusing the consumer and invalidating the commitment to moving from a linear economy to one that is as circular and sustainable as possible.

What should companies do then?

On this subject I wrote a book, there are so many things to say. But, in short, companies must first of all do a self-analysis: with the help of experts, evaluate the status quo and think about an improvement strategy that sometimes may not give immediate results but must be clearly defined. Only then, with a photograph of current events in hand and with a dream in the drawer, can they begin to tell their story. If the story is still sketchy, the company website can be the perfect place to start a discussion and publicly formalize your environmental commitments. When it is more defined and supported by facts, then you can step into the social arena: always avoiding going beyond what is allowed by scientifically quantifiable facts, combining the validity of the data with the attractiveness and simplicity of the messages.


Another piece of advice I would like to give is not to be overwhelmed by anti-something media phenomena and focus on telling the environmental impact in its entirety, avoiding the reference to an enemy material to be eliminated to save the world. I am thinking, for example, of the theme of plastic, which in 2019 held the bench absolutely: while those who really know environmental issues know that it is not a material to be condemned tout court, as well as that the use of bio-plastics is not necessarily a cure-all. .

Read also from IDJ: Recycling plastics: utopia or reality


Cover photo: Donatella Giuntoli, Nature, 1972 ca. Five plexiglass cubes of various sizes (8.5x8.5x8.51 cm; 12.5x12.5x12.5 cm), plastic elements. Ph. Courtesy Collezione Massimiliano e Annalisa Vannucci, Pistoia. The work as part of the exhibition Pistoia Novecento. Sguardi sull’arte dal secondo dopoguerraFondazione Pistoia Musei - Palazzo de’ Rossi, Pistoia, Italy, from 19 September 2020 to 22 August 2021.