Consumers expect honesty from brands – good communication is essential for companies on the sustainability journey

We talk to sustainability communications expert Rosie Davenport, founder of Impact Focus, about greenwashing and why a clearly communicated sustainability strategy is imperative for business survival.

What motivated you to specialise in sustainability communications?

Having spent 16 years as a journalist, I was always mindful of the need to gather facts and ask lots of questions. It helped that my psychology degree made me a bit of a geek for research and data, especially around consumer behaviour. As an editor, I specialised in the global wine and drinks industry, a market heavily reliant on the planet for raw materials and also squeezed by the commercial pressures of an incredibly price-sensitive UK retail scene. Back then, the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) was just emerging. Now it sits in the wider remit of sustainability as the need for businesses to address their broader impact has grown. 

Moving from journalism into public relations & corporate communication enabled me to see the coin from the other side and delve more deeply into areas of reputation management, sustainability and stakeholder engagement. I spent nearly three years in Sydney managing global communications for Australian Vintage, a publicly-listed wine company, which coincided with the 2019 bush fires. 

Experiencing the unfolding climate disaster and devastation first-hand was a life-changing moment. It was the catalyst to wanting to build on my technical knowledge about climate change and understand ways businesses can transition to more sustainable operating models. When I returned to the UK, I launched my own consultancy, Impact Focus, to support companies with practical advice on their sustainability journey and how to clearly communicate their plans to consumers, media, investors, trading partners and internal teams. 

Experiencing the unfolding climate disaster and devastation first-hand was a life-changing moment.

You have very rich experience advising on global sustainability communication strategies for many different organisations and sectors. Tell us about the learnings throughout your career.

Sustainability in all its forms has rightfully moved up the corporate agenda. It’s gone beyond a box-ticking exercise of light-bulb upgrades and notices about office paper recycling to a key board-level priority. Just as businesses have become more IT and digitally-focused, sustainability requires a transition mindset.

There is a growing expectation from stakeholders, including investors and NGOs, that companies articulate their thinking and actions through clear communications, including publishing robust sustainability reports, which apply the same rigour as a company’s annual financial reporting cycle. Investors increasingly rely on sustainability reports and other external communications to make funding decisions and compare potential investment opportunities.

Knowing and reporting the facts with accuracy and clarity is crucial. There’s always a lot of talk in the public relations and communications world about authentic communication and, when it comes to how businesses interact with the sustainability agenda, that really boils down to transparency and honesty. Brand and corporate reputation can be easily lost when companies say one thing, then do another. 

Can you share your take on current controversies around greenwashing and your advice on best practices for companies to avoid making false green claims?

Consumers’ relationships with businesses and the brands they buy are at an interesting intersection. Amid declining trust in governments and the media, consumers still believe in businesses and want companies to show leadership on societal issues such as climate change and economic inequality, where politicians are perceived to be failing (Edelman Trust Barometer 2022). This is both a challenge and an opportunity for companies from a comms perspective. The perceived uptick in “going green” has arguably led to a rise in over-inflated claims. Research by Google Cloud, published last week, showed 58% of executives admitted their company was guilty of greenwashing. 

This will come as no surprise to researchers working on global study for the UK government who found that 40% of green claims made online could be misleading. It’s no wonder that consumers are sceptical about brand messaging. In September last year the UK’s Green Claims Code was launched by the Competition and Markets Authority, effectively putting companies on notice to clean up their act. The code set out a series of guidelines aimed at protecting consumers’ rights to fair and accurate information about a product’s green credentials so they can make informed choices. It mirrors similar obligations in the EU, where companies are also required to substantiate their marketing statements and avoid ambiguous or spurious claims. 

Again, the crucial factor is delivering transparency in brand and corporate communications. Ultimately, businesses vary in the maturity of their sustainability journey. Stakeholders will generally not expect a company to have all the answers, and it’s OK to admit that, to acknowledge that the sustainable transition is a work in progress. 

Research by Google Cloud showed 58% of executives admitted their company was guilty of greenwashing.

What do you think needs to happen to stop corporations greenwashing their performance?

The intervention by governments to stamp out greenwashing is a step in the right direction and forces company boards, CEOs and executives to be much more forensic in their approach to sustainability and their wider environmental, social and governance responsibilities. The emphasis needs to be about making a balanced appraisal of a company’s current position, identifying areas where they have the most impact and tangible ways to address those issues, and by when. 

Making meaningful commitments isn’t easy. It requires companies to take a thorough and holistic approach to their operations – good and bad – to properly assess where the key hotspots are and where best to focus for maximum benefit. It’s this kind of robust analysis that moves companies and their communications away from greenwashing and delivers greater transparency and trust. 

Some companies have already embarked on that process by, for example, getting to grips with their Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions or introducing a responsible sourcing policy to manage supplier relationships. Others are seeking out increasingly innovative ways to embed circular systems into their business models or challenge industry norms, moving the corporate dialogue towards people and planet, not just profit at any cost. 

Reporting on sustainability goals and company performance is becoming a mandatory requirement for some larger firms, in the same way as the market expects to see detailed financial KPIs. But smaller businesses are also increasingly publishing this information to demonstrate accountability and avoid accusations of greenwashing. 

The intervention by governments to stamp out greenwashing is a step in the right direction and forces company boards, CEOs and executives to be much more forensic in their approach.

What advice would you give to SMEs and start-ups wanting to embark on sustainability and become responsible agents of change?

The key thing is to get on and get started. Don’t put off having the conversation about what a sustainability transition could look like for your organisation. SMEs have a huge role to play in improving the outlook for the environment and communities. They often have the advantage of operating at a local level and can be more agile when it comes to implementing organisational change. While current global legislation around environmental and social issues mostly applies to larger companies, the responsibility of implementing new practices is undoubtedly cascading down to SMEs.

We’re seeing a trend towards supplier deselection and, in the last year, according to a Barclays survey, one in five UK retailers have terminated contracts – totalling over £7 billion – because companies failed to meet their stringent ethical and sustainable standards. Having a sustainability strategy in place and communicating it clearly has become a commercial imperative. The landscape is shifting at a pace and, as we emerge from the pandemic, there is a widening gap between companies who have put sustainability on the back-burner, and others forging ahead to de-risk their business and build long-term resilience. 

One in five UK retailers have terminated contracts because companies failed to meet their stringent ethical and sustainable standards. (Barclays survey)

What keeps you motivated to continue this sometimes seemingly thankless career of pushing for systemic change to allow for a more sustainable future for all?

Despite the plethora of issues we face, I feel extremely energised by the potential we have to solve them. Working in sustainability communications is an incredibly humbling and gratifying experience, witnessing the collaborative efforts and creativity from companies and individuals is very motivating. The onslaught of daily news headlines feeds the narrative that consumers are powerless to influence environmental and social issues. Yet we are living in a period of extraordinary innovation and fresh thinking. Many of the solutions we need to address society’s biggest problems already exist.

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