ESG 2022: ESG or greenwashing? – by MMA’s Melis Ertem

The MMA’s Melis Ertem explains how to tell the difference, and how to do it right

By Melis Ertem, regional director, Turkey and MENA, Mobile Marketing Association (MMA)

Environmental, social, governance. Three words that can strike fear in the hearts of responsible marketers everywhere. As the world moves to be more socially conscious – driven greatly by the transition of Gen Z-ers transitioning to adulthood and entering the workforce – companies are being pushed more and more on ESG. But what does it mean, and why does it matter to marketers? 

When we think of ESG, we often link it to the concept of greenwashing, and it’s easy to see why.

We can define ESG as: “Environmental, social, and governance practices used to guide and/or evaluate corporate principles, designed to promote ethical and responsible business practices.”

Greenwashing is: “Capitalising on the concept of environmentally positive products and business practices through false, misleading, or unsubstantiated claims in order to increase business exposure or sales under the guise of being environmentally sound.”

As marketers, it is easy to dismiss environmental impact, working conditions and corporate governance as issues for scientists, HR professionals and CEOs. But marketers act as brand guardians, and it’s all too easy for things to come crashing down with a false claim or mislabelled product, so how we communicate our company’s ESG efforts matter now, more than ever. We’ve seen a few too many cases of a brand making a bold claim, only to be torn apart in the press days later. 

When we consider the future of marketing, it’s pertinent to note Insider Intelligence’s prediction that Gen Z will soon become the largest cohort of consumers. And, according to First Insight, three-quarters of Gen Z consumers state that sustainability is more important to them than brand name when making purchase decisions. Born 1997-2012, this cohort is also reported to have low brand loyalty compared with other generations, with only 37 per cent of Gen Z considered to be ‘brand loyal’, being more likely to switch to a competitor if a brand is seen to break its promises. 

So, how, as marketers, can we protect our brands (and ourselves) from the backlash of a greenwashing claim? Before communicating ESG protocols to the public, challenge your colleagues and request data to back their claims. When crafting communication, use clear and concise language to avoid misinterpretation. 

If the business objective is to achieve gender equality by striving for a gender-balanced workplace – a social initiative currently being undertaken by MMA, where we seek to have 50 per cent female representation across all business touchpoints including on panels and at events – then put a measurable statistic against the claim that can be revisited and quantifiably measured to showcase progress and success. Where possible, get a third party to validate claims. 

Ensure that messaging, packaging, advertising and imagery aren’t misleading, and don’t let anything go live until you’re certain that it’s not misleading. HR can’t provide data to corroborate a social claim? Production doesn’t have a certificate to verify that the packaging is responsibly sourced? Management won’t share results of an audit? Deny their requests for marketing support. It’s not about being difficult, it’s about being better as a company, as individuals, and as a global community. 

Not only do we have a responsibility to act as custodians of the businesses we represent, but we have a responsibility to the public, too. Is there a wider job to be done with the mass implementation of government-imposed policies? Absolutely. But until then, it’s up to us marketers to challenge our brands and our teams to do better. To not allow false claims, to push business agendas to be more ESG-conscious. We sit at the intersection of companies and the public, and the buck needs to stop at us.