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Sustainability: What Not To Say

Sustainability: What Not To Say

Our essential list of sustainability terms to avoid if you want to stay relevant and credible.

Sustainability is the hottest topic right now for companies who want to show that they’re doing good. But too many of them are still using woolly words or inaccurate terminology, and consumers are increasingly savvy when it comes to brands talking evasively or opaquely about their efforts.

This scepticism is increasingly shared by political powerbrokers too: earlier this year, the UK’s Advertising Standards Agency announced plans to ban adverts which claimed carbon neutrality based on offsetting, “unless companies can prove they really work”.

Organisations like The Carbon Trust have been highlighting these issues for a while, with one recent piece putting them in succinct but effective terms: “the more we understand a product’s carbon footprint" they explain, "the better choices we can make.” Businesses looking to get ahead of the pack on sustainability, and avoid regulatory or reputational pitfalls around dubious environmental claims, should take notice.

So here’s our contribution to that process, in the form of an official Fox + Hare Top 5: the essential list of sustainability terms you need to avoid if you want to sound (and be genuinely) relevant and credible in this space.

  1. “Carbon Neutral” – this means balancing the carbon a given company emits with the carbon they remove from the atmosphere. But there’s no real way to define or measure neutrality, and loads of companies fudge the numbers by excluding emissions from their supply chain or transport. It’s a vague, unhelpful term and people are beginning to see through it.
  2. “Zero Carbon” – this means that a product or service produces no emissions at all, which is fundamentally impossible given that even breathing produces carbon dioxide! It’s often used in conjunction with other sustainability claims, but it’s essentially meaningless. Steer well clear if you want to be taken seriously.
  3. “Carbon-Free” – as above, this is both physically impossible and rhetorically incoherent given that – as any sci-fi fan will tell you – we’re carbon-based lifeforms.
  4. “Carbon-Negative” – this is a claim that the net effect of a product or service is to remove carbon from the atmosphere, and is usually achieved with offsetting and carbon credits. But as with “Carbon Neutral” it’s often achieved by getting creative with the numbers: unless your business is planting whole forests or huge seagrass meadows, it’s unlikely you’re carbon-negative in any real sense.
  5. “Climate Positive” – this is so vague that it could mean anything, from murdering half of the world’s population to smiling at your neighbour, both of which could be seen however spuriously as helping the environment.

None of these terms are clearly defined or understood, either by experts or the general public. By using them, you either risk having people misunderstand you, or attack you for greenwashing and dishonesty.

So what should you say instead? Here are a few key things to remember when trying to craft a sustainability message that connects with people:

  1. Be clear and precise - what specific initiatives are you involved in, and what impact are they having? Who are you helping, and how? Don’t just talk about sustainability in the abstract, make sure that your story has a grounding in the real world.
  2. Pick the right battles - focus on sustainability initiatives that are relevant to the impact your brand has on the world, rather than vague appeals to green-ness or the latest sustainability fad. For clothing companies this could involve talking about supply chain issues and workers’ rights; for a soft drink brand it might mean focusing on health and obesity.
  3. Know your audience - younger demographics tend to expect more from brands when it comes to sustainability, and will look elsewhere if they think you’re being woolly or hard to trust. Older consumers might give you more leeway, but they still expect to see you back up your words with real-world action.

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