Over the past few years, shopping sustainably has been in the hearts and minds of consumers more than ever before. As the market for eco-friendly products flourished in response, concern began to mount about ‘greenwashing’ – a term coined to refer to brands that made misleading environmental claims in an effort to appear more sustainable. 

Following a report that showed 57 per cent of surveyed businesses were making potentially misleading claims, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has released draft guidelines to help businesses avoid falling into the greenwashing trap. The report recommends that businesses assess their environmental claims to comply with eight key areas, including ensuring all claims are accurate and backed by solid evidence, using easy-to-understand language for consumers, and ensuring that vital information isn’t concealed.

With this in mind, it’s essential that businesses look at their own sustainability journey to ensure they are compliant with the new guidelines. 

Look at the big picture

Making broad claims about your commitment to sustainability while continuing to uphold harmful practices is a form of greenwashing, as it can give customers the impression that your business is more sustainable than it really is. While releasing eco-friendly products is a great step forward, a truly sustainable business looks beyond merely what the consumer sees. 

Looking at every aspect of your business – from the supply chain to ingredients or materials used, packaging, shipping, and volume of products created – is the first step to truly making sustainability a priority. Aiming to reduce waste at every stage is a great place to start. Creating packaging that the customer can repurpose at the end of its lifecycle or working with suppliers who will repurpose fabric offcuts is a simple way to reduce waste and contribution to landfill.

Where possible, it’s a great idea to eliminate the use of unnecessary materials altogether. You can start by identifying any materials that are non-essential to the customer experience and can therefore be digitised or removed entirely. For us at CandleXchange, we realised that brochures, customer cards, and receipts could all be delivered via QR code. This allowed us to save on paper that would just end up in recycling anyway while still providing the same benefits to the customer.

Be as transparent and honest as possible

The ACCC made specific mention of transparency in its greenwashing guidelines, urging businesses to be forthright about their sustainability journey. This is central to the issue of greenwashing as it ensures brands can be held accountable for their environmental impact and customers can have trust in the claims they see. 

Being open about your sustainability targets, identifying areas of improvement, and following through on your commitments will allow you to build trust amongst your customer base. In fact, 48% of consumers say that they are more likely to recommend a brand who has shown a commitment to sustainability targets. Being transparent can also make your customers more receptive to the changes your brand makes in the process of reaching your targets, such as using different packaging or ingredients.

Encourage sustainable customer habits

You may create products that can be repurposed after they are used or send your items in recyclable or biodegradable packaging, but do your customers know what they should do once the product is in their hands? 

Educating your customers on the intended end-of-life plan for your products is essential to ensuring they make sustainable choices. Providing tips and ideas on how to repurpose old packaging, creating how-to videos for recycling materials, or showing how to properly dispose of biodegradable mail satchels will ensure that you’re following through with your objectives until the end of the customer journey.

Is compliance enough?

The ACCC greenwashing guidelines are a great way to ensure your business is being open and transparent with consumers regarding its sustainability practices. However, your brand’s sustainability should run much deeper than just how you communicate.

There are numerous ways that you can improve the environmental impact of your retail store and make sustainability a core part of your brand. Partnering with local community organisations to donate unused or imperfect stock will reduce your contribution to landfill and ensure perfectly good items are given a new purpose.

Another great option is to run workshops on mending or altering clothes to encourage customers to make use of what they already have rather than buying brand new. By promoting circular economy practices, the community, the environment, and your brand can all benefit.

As consumers become more aware of greenwashing, it’s no longer enough for brands to simply market products as sustainable without looking at their wider impact. Placing sustainability at the heart of your brand and operating from a place of intention is essential to building trust with the eco-conscious consumer and caring for our environment.

Karen Platt is co-founder at CandleXchange.