Consumer Groups Seeing Red Over Greenwashing; Giving Companies the Sustainability Blues

In an era when environmental consciousness is on the rise, and companies have tried to cash in on those sentiments through unsubstantiated marketing claims based largely on future pledges, consumers are becoming increasingly vigilant. They are demanding to know the authenticity of sustainability claims.

The practice of greenwashing, where companies promote an image of environmental friendliness without substantiating their claims, has sparked outrage both in the courtroom and in the court of public opinion.

Because many companies have hopped on the happy sustainability bandwagon, in some cases without a ticket to do so, a growing number of them are finding themselves buckled into a thrill ride they were not counting on. Major players across industry sectors are retracing, retracting and doing just about anything else they can do to avoid what might be called — rather than small claims court — environmental claims court.

A number of greenwashing lawsuits are making their way into our justice system, and consumer groups and environmental non-governmental organizations (eNGOs) have been at the forefront of the battle. They are embracing consumer protection laws to challenge misleading statements in green marketing campaigns. There are more than a few prominent examples.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court in California in late May, Delta Airlines came under fire for proclaiming itself as “the world’s first carbon-neutral airline.” The legal action questions this claim, leaving consumers wondering about the airline’s commitment to genuine environmental progress. Meanwhile, Delta is standing behind its goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.

In other jurisdictions, airlines also seem to be missing the sustainability runway. In a milestone case, the Dutch airline KLM, faced a landmark lawsuit asserting that its climate advertisements and offset marketing violated EU consumer law standards. A European judge in June ruled the case has grounds and allowed it to proceed. The legal action questions the airline’s ability to genuinely embrace environmental sustainability, highlighting possible deceptive claims.

Other airlines are taking notice. United recently said the company’s reputation could suffer if customers raise greenwashing concerns about its advertising and marketing of its sustainability initiatives. In 2020, United pledged to become 100% green by eliminating its GHG emissions by 2050 without relying on traditional carbon offsets.

Agriculture is a resource-intensive sector. Working with the environment is just part of the daily routine. While it might be tempting to step out on the ledge to proclaim a halo of sustainability, it’s hazardous to do so without verifiable, scientific evidence.

When talking about sustainability these days, the best defense might be to practice restraint. The only effective shield against accusations of greenwashing is for companies to be honest and transparent about their environmental initiatives. By avoiding exaggerated claims and ensuring that claims are supported by credible evidence, businesses can safeguard their reputation and build genuine trust with consumers.

Especially in agriculture, which always seems to find its way into the environmental crosshairs, it is essential for companies to underpromise and overdeliver, rather than overstate their capabilities and risk falling into the trap of greenwashing. Technology and innovation offers a ray of hope in food production, as farmers and the companies who provide them crop inputs continue to focus on producing more with less.

That’s a true reputational advantage when compared to business entities such as airlines. Agriculture’s production statistics are scrutinized like no others.

As activist consumers become increasingly discerning, it is crucial for businesses to embrace authentic sustainability practices and communicate transparently, fostering a genuine commitment to environmental stewardship. The reputational risk to do otherwise is a great burden. By doing so, companies can avoid the pitfalls of greenwashing and contribute to a more sustainable future without facing the peril of a possible crash landing in a courtroom.