Last updated: Sustainable consumption: More action, less greenwashing

Sustainable consumption: More action, less greenwashing


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Sustainability – the buzzword of the decade or a trend that’s come to stay? That will largely depend on whether the broad mass of consumers will act more sustainably.

After all, 72% of global greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to private household consumption. While most people say they want to practice sustainable consumption, for many of them it remains more talk than action.

For example, a study by online retailer Zalando found that around 60% of customers consider secondhand and sustainable disposal of clothing to be important. In everyday life, only 25% regularly buy secondhand clothes.

What can brands do to encourage sustainable consumption and get consumers to walk the talk? Let’s take a look.

What is sustainable consumption and production?

Sustainable consumption and production is about doing more and better with less resources. According to the U.N. environment programme, sustainable consumption and production is “the use of services and related products, which respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life while minimizing the use of natural resources and toxic materials as well as the emissions of waste and pollutants over the life cycle of the service or product so as not to jeopardize the needs of future generations”

Sustainable consumption and the behavior gap

This discrepancy between what we say about sustainable consumption and what we actually do about it is called the “attitude-behavior gap.” Closing this gap is a huge factor to saving emissions and the planet.

Unilever estimates that almost 70% of the company’s greenhouse gas footprint depends on which products customers choose and if they use and dispose them in a sustainable way.

How can we close this gap? According to Capgemini, companies need to make their sustainability initiatives visible and tangible, which helps customers easily find and buy sustainable products or services.

However, in a world of constant communication, customers can only engage with such sustainability messages if they’re presented in a targeted, relevant way – for instance via small “nudges” (see example below).

(Source: EcoCart)

Brands can make this messaging more powerful by delivering customer-centric, “green” front-end communications built on trusted data. This will encourage customers’ eco-conscious behavior and promote sustainable consumption and eventually close the attitude-behavior gap.

Beware of greenwashing

Of course, these are only extra measures to existing frameworks for corporate sustainability. There’s a fine line between driving real behavioral change and greenwashing.

What is greenwashing? It involves companies using deceitful marketing tactics, giving a false impression of their environmental impact and misleading customers who want buy products from truly environmentally conscious firms.

Unfortunately, greenwashing is widespread. The European Commission found that in 2020 42% of online corporate green claims were exaggerated, false or deceptive.

These practices aren’t only illegal, but also highly unethical – yet they continue to occur. What’s behind it? Think about it: sustainability sells.

This is alarming, as greenwashing is highly dangerous on various levels: it exploits and potentially reduces customers’ genuine concerns about the environment, impacts employees’ pride, and damages business reputation.

4 ways to avoid greenwashing

In order to build trust with consumers and encourage sustainability, industries and brands should consider these practices:

  1. Rely on trustable systems for data before implementing green promotions. According to the 2020 Circular Economy action plan, “the Commission will also propose that companies substantiate their environmental claims using Product and Organization Environmental Footprint methods.”
  2. Make sure third-party certifications are credible
  3. Standardize definitions for terms such as “eco-conscious,” sustainable, and carbon neutral
  4. Implement sustainability as an integral part of businesses strategy and operations

Putting these steps into practice isn’t a fast process; the work could take years to complete.

Until then — until some of the underlying problems such as greenwashing, are fixed – it will depend on each and every one of us to make sustainability not just a passing fancy, but a trend that’s here to stay.

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Editor’s Note: Ramkumar Sethuramalingam, Director, SAP CX Solution Experience, co-authored this article. Ram has extensive expertise in marketing, cross-functional CX, experience center, and sustainability. He has more than 15 years of varied experience in SAP Consulting, Field Presales Customer Advisory, and Solution Experience and also is a speaker, mentor, and passionate advocate for sustainability.

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