April 24, 2024

Are female board members more guilty of greenwashing?

Marketing Director, Bec Peel, looks into this recent claim and offers her thoughts on how you can avoid it



With 72% of brands stating that one of their biggest fears is to be accused of greenwashing, Bec Peel looks at its impact on brands and how they can communicate sustainability issues with clarity.

Sign up



I’ve read a few reports recently on the subject of greenwashing. The one that compelled me to write this was the study claiming that “firms with more [gender] diverse boards had greater discrepancies between green communication and green practices. In other words, they greenwash more than others.” 

This led The International Institute for Management Development (IMD) to conclude that board [gender] diversity may be set to reverse in 2024. Sorry, what? So to solve one problem, we take backward steps on another key issue for business? To me, this feels wrong on every level.

And of course, when I delved into more research, I could find plenty of studies to counteract this. Indeed, the Journal of Management & Governance published a study that revealed that firms with women in top positions are associated with greater engagement in social and environmental projects – positively influencing environmental and social performance, increasing the level, quality, and transparency of sustainability disclosure, and improving the firms’ financial performance and value. Now that seems more like it!

However, with 72% of clients from the DBA and Up to the Light’s ‘What Clients Think’ report admitting that one of their biggest fears is to be accused of greenwashing, I think the more important issue is to look at it from a marketing perspective – to understand why our customers think brands are guilty of this, and what its impact on brands actually is.

What exactly is greenwashing?

We’ve all heard the term. We think we know what’s meant when it’s used, but last year, KPMG surveyed 2,000+ UK adults asking them how they defined greenwashing:

  • False or misleading claims about the sustainability of specific products (76%) 
  • Exaggerated or unsubstantiated sustainability credentials (73%)
  • Misleading commitments on net zero (66%)
  • Inconsistent ethical policies (60%)
  • Missing sustainability targets (39%)

It’s clear from these descriptions that people believe brands set out to deliberately deceive people, yet sometimes, it can be done unintentionally – where brands naively make claims without fully knowing and understanding the requirements to do so. Unfortunately, even this kind of ‘oversight’ can be hugely damaging, as once trust is eroded it’s hard to win back.

The impact on brands

In Kantar’s ‘Mistrust and rejection: The impact of greenwashing and social washing on brands’, the correlation between people looking to make a difference and greenwashing is clearly highlighted. I.e. “the more people look for solutions, the more they feel brands green/social wash and the more they start dropping things out of their consideration set.”

Something that the KPMG research agrees with – 54% of consumers say they’d stop buying from a company if they were found to have been misleading in their sustainability claims, with just under a fifth having already done so.

Clearly, this has a significant impact on revenue and the bottom line, as well as a brand’s reputation. So what can brands do to avoid falling into this increasingly common practice?  Particularly in the fashion industry – named as one of the most likely offenders by several demographics.

How to avoid greenwashing

For me, it comes down to three key behaviours:

1. Put people first

It’s marketing 101. It’s not about what you want to say, but what your customers, staff, suppliers, etc. need to hear, and how your work benefits them.

It’s also vital to understand the world they live in and the decisions they have to make on a daily basis. Mail Metro Media Insights’ Shades of Green report highlights this all too well. At first glance, 78% of respondents say climate change is important to them, but when you put that in context and ask them to rank various issues they face in priority order, only 4% put the environment first behind the cost of living, NHS, family life, etc.

2. Be clear

Firstly, about your sustainability goals and targets, and secondly in the way you communicate progress against them.

Avoid jargon and terms that are often misunderstood. Instead, keep it simple and communicate in your customers’ language.

And if you’re reporting on large numbers, give context and relate them to something quantifiable and understandable – e.g. a plastic usage reduction of 1,234 tonnes = just over 224m plastic bags or just under ¼ of the billion plastic bags sold by the UK’s seven main supermarkets (as of 2018).

3. Be committed

You absolutely have to do what you say you’re going to do. Follow through on your plans. If for some reason you don’t hit your objectives, be honest and say so. Along with why you haven’t and what you’re going to do about it. People will appreciate you’re on a journey and value honesty over trying to cover up with inflated claims elsewhere.

So there you have it. Some clear thoughts on how you can avoid your brand falling into the greenwashing trap – regardless of your gender…


More news

Never stand still

When uncertainty and shifting expectations are the new normal, brands no longer need radical transformation. What’s needed is long-term thinking and the ability to adapt quickly.

Ready for change?
Let’s talk

Start with an email, and we’ll be in touch within 24 hours to organise a phone call, video chat, or face-to-face coffee – whatever works best for you.