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Environmental communication

Communication is the last step along any path towards sustainability, and the first rule is to simply state what was done, not embellish what wasn't.

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What is environmental communication?

Environmental communication is one of the tools that a company can use alongside their environmental policy to explain the choices made and to present the results achieved.
For this reason, communication should take place when you have something to say, i.e., when specific goals have been reached. An improved or strengthened corporate image, through environmental communication, must be accurate, substantiated, verifiable.
All companies impact the environment, so there’s a lot of room for improvement, often activated by management that makes the effort to place the environment among the company's priorities.
Moreover, responsible consumption and production are one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which we are all being called upon to achieve, including through communication.

12.6: to encourage companies, especially large and trans-national companies, to adopt sustainable practices and to integrate sustainability information into their reporting cycle.

12.8: by 2030, ensure that people everywhere have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature.

Even consumers are paying more attention to sustainable products, though they are often misled by communication that’s incomplete, fragmentary, and mixed up, which risks undermining even the reputation of trustworthy brands, or increasing skepticism in relation to environmental communication in general.

The role of a responsible company also includes carefully curating the type of information that it conveys to combat the all-too-common practice of messaging that's imprecise, irrelevant, and unsupported by scientific data.

Sustainable communication is much more than marketing to incentivize a purchase. It’s the whole of all the information, ideas, data, and advice that is conveyed with the goal of not just selling, but also improving the use of a product, so that it has less impact and is also more efficient and affordable for the consumer, so that it and its packaging are disposed of properly, and to explain the ways it can be reused or dismantled.

Consumers are guided in their choice by many factors, from their needs, habits, and beliefs, to the cost, their perception of a given company and, in terms of sustainability, the knowledge they have. Sustainability isn’t a simple subject. Sometimes people believe that products and services are sustainable simply because they seem to be so, but in reality, the impact of a product should be scientifically measured. The right kind of communication is a chance to explain these aspects, improve the visibility of products with a lower environmental impact, offer advice, facilitate purchases with different elements of the marketing mix, and to use recognizable, transparent, ecolabels.

The more they interact with consumers, the more companies have the chance to transform their communications into an opportunity for dialog and participation, a conversation that is much more than the mere consumption of a product.

What do we mean by an environmental claim?

Also called “green claims,” environmental claims contain information about the environmental qualities of a product. They can appear on the product itself, on its packaging or on marketing materials. They can take the form of text, symbols or images, and they can be found on paper elements or be digital/electronic. They are used to promote products with reduced environmental impact.

If I use images of mountains or other pristine places, implying that my product is made there, this is by all means a claim, not just a visual element. If my company has created a logo to promote specific products, that’s an environmental claim that needs to comply with certain requirements.

Environmental communication: best practices

Communication is the last step in any sustainability plan, and the number one rule is thus to state what has been done, not to embellish what hasn’t.

In three points, here’s what to do:

1 - Do you know the environmental impact of your products and services?

When talking about environmental impact, we refer to all the aspects relevant to the life cycle of a product. Why the entire life cycle? Isn’t knowing about the impact of single processes or phases enough (such as manufacturing) to tell if the environmental performance of a product has improved? No, it isn't, as indicated by the ISO standard on self-declared environmental claims (ISO 14021). If you take just one phase into account, you aren’t truly getting a complete picture of the true impact of a good/service; and talking about commitment in areas of minor impact (instead of the area where most impact is concentrated) is to conceal its true impact. If you demonstrate improvement in just one process, this doesn’t clarify what impact that change has had on other processes downstream or upstream.

Are the communicated impacts relevant to the overall environmental impact of the product? If not, you are essentially drawing your clients’ attention to a tree so that they can't see the forest. If the improvement is minimal, or worse, insignificant, communication about it probably is too.

If you want to talk about improvement, what you say should state concrete advantages over the previous way of doing things, or it should be relevant to consumers. If it isn’t, don’t communicate it.

LCA and communication

The “why” of the life cycle in environmental communication
Learn more

2 - Can you convey the impact of your service or product truthfully and accurately?

Saying that the claim has to be true may seem obvious, yet this is one of the most-assumed and least-respected details when it comes to environmental communication. Being truthful means representing the true degree of the environmental benefit, without exaggerating, precisely stating which part or phase of the product it applies to, in clear, easy-to-understand language (even for non-experts) and indicating the method used to measure that benefit. Every logo, symbol or image used should be supporting tool, not a misleading one, ensuring that it can't be misinterpreted.

3 - Is what you communicate verifiable?

To be verifiable, that which you communicate must be supported by suitable evaluation methods. Your message must be objective with precise references. If based on scientific methods, it’s important that the appropriate standards, the latest guidelines, or the most up-to-date tests are applied.

As required by ISO 14021, all information supporting a claim must be made available if requested. It’s best to be transparent, and to always be clear as you carefully describe how you reached the results described.

Environmental labeling

In addition to obligatory labels, which are placed on the product by law (such as energy labels for home appliances), there are other labels that are voluntary: those are the ones that fall into our area of expertise.

They can be self-declared or, for those who prefer greater control and security, there are other ways to convey the environmental impact of a product and the sustainability path it took to get there, such as labels and certifications from independent entities.

Environmental labels can refer to the impact of the entire life cycle of the product, or to particular environmental aspects (e.g., FSC certification). Then there are environmental labels that can be applied to any product, and those that are specific to a given industry.

Labels on seafood

How to recognize sustainable fish?
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Deciding which environmental label is best-suited to a company is a delicate process, part of a larger context that considers the goals of the company and how committed it is, its corporate and environmental strategies, the product category and the markets it's sold in.

Let's take a look at the three types of environmental labels for products:

Ecolabel type 1

This label is a certification obtained after having complied with certain criteria; it refers to the entire life cycle of the product. The product or service to be certified should thus respect the threshold levels for the criteria established. The certification is granted by an independent organization. This group includes, for example, the EU Ecolabel, Germany’s Blue Angel, and Australia's GECA. ISO 14024 refers to type 1 ecolabels and states the principles and the procedures for creating environmental labelling programs, the selection of the different product categories, evaluation criteria and certification procedures.

Raise your hand if you've heard of the EU ecolabel

Environmental labels can be very useful, but they need to properly communicated.
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Ecolabel type 2

The second type of ecolabel doesn’t require certification by an independent organization and is thus based on self-certification. Since it is regulated by ISO 14021, it must comply with all the indications therein, such as verifiability. In general, this label type refers mainly to single environmental aspects. For example, the recyclability label (represented by the three arrows forming a triangle, in a sort of Mobius strip) is a type 2 ecolabel. ISO 14021 specifies the requirements for self-declared environmental claims referring to products, packaging and services, and those used on the packaging itself or in ads or other marketing materials via different types of media.

Mobius strip

A symbol of recyclability or recycled content, depending on how it’s used.
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Ecolabel type 3

This label concerns environmental information relative to a product or service that is presented and made public in a pre-established, formalized way. The Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) is part of this category, a verified and registered document that contains clear information on the life cycle and the environmental impact of a product. An EPD requires that an LCA is carried out, complying with a series of requirements established for each specific product category (product category rules - PCR), and also requires third-party verification. Over the years, EPD certification has seen intense development, in Italy and beyond.

We have years of experience in EPD declarations and we’ve assisted many companies in this type of certification, sometimes even developing PCRs for their product category. For companies that have an advanced degree of experience in LCA methodology, and those that efficiently manage their data and have an organized data collection system, it may be interesting to take a leap forward through EPD process certification, which offers the possibility to independently publish the EPDs of one's products.

We’ve created a guide that explains the differences between:

  • product EPD
  • EPD process certification
  • EPD tool

Guide to EPD declarations

Which certification is best for my company?
Check our guide

The rules of environmental claims

Once you’ve calculated the impact of your product, you can use this guide to perform a check-up on your communications:

  1. Environmental claims must be honest, true and accurate.
  2. The claim must be useful and relevant.
  3. The claim mustn’t create misunderstandings or incorrect interpretations, nor should it omit information or exaggerate or emphasize the environmental aspect, such as re-stating a fact in different ways to make consumers believe there are more benefits than there really are.
  4. The language used should be comprehensible to the average consumer.
  5. Generic statements that aren’t backed by facts should be avoided. Terms such as “green,” “non-polluting,” “safe for the environment,” “environmentally friendly,” and also “sustainable” should be avoided.
  6. The benefits must be real and they must be specified. You must also indicate what part of the product or what phase of the life cycle the claim refers to.
  7. Claims must be proven and verified, available at any time and provided upon request to any interested party. Here our article on the importance of proof in environmental claims.
  8. Environmental claims must be updated if there are changes that might influence their truthfulness (e.g., changes to laws and regulations, changes to production processes, etc.).
  9. Environmental claims must consider the entire life cycle of the product. Though a complete life cycle analysis isn’t necessarily required, the claim should be proven and substantiated by a scientific method that is sufficiently complete and in-depth.
  10. Le asserzioni comparative dovrebbero essere fatte solo tra beni e servizi con funzioni simili o che soddisfano simili bisogni e riferirsi a processi o prodotti precedenti o diversi dell’organizzazione. Le asserzioni comparative dovrebbero essere espresse come differenze assolute se si basano su valori percentuali; come miglioramenti relativi se invece si basano su valori assoluti.
  11. Le immagini e i simboli vanno considerati alla stregua di affermazioni ambientali e quindi anche per essi valgono i principi di chiarezza e di veridicità. L’uso dei simboli dovrebbe essere esplicitamente chiarito. Gli oggetti naturali dovrebbero essere direttamente collegabili al beneficio.

Our guide to environmental claims

The fundamentals of how to convey sustainability. Truth will out, and that includes greenwashing.
Check our guide

Greenwashing

Greenwashing is when a company tries to make its products seem more sustainable than they are, providing information that doesn’t reflect reality in order to improve its image.

How many companies are guilty of greenwashing? Lots! We see it all too often, though less than in the past: companies overstating their commitment to protecting the environment. Today, it seems like every business cares about the future of the planet, only to discover that corporate missions don’t talk about the environment, that a sustainability strategy or policy is entirely lacking, or that characteristics of products are emphasized with terms not recommended by applicable ISO standards. But things are changing quickly, and spurring this trend is growing corporate awareness, a critical spirit among consumers, and more investigations into misleading advertising on the part of authorities in different countries. Change may come in different forms, but it will be characterized by transparency, the sharing of relevant information, and increased awareness among consumers.

We carefully follow market developments and monitor cases of false, misleading advertisements. Here are two interesting cases of the latter.

An example of a misleading advertisement

An ad campaign promoting a catalytic converter considered misleading by the ASA (Advertising Standards Agency), the English advertising regulator.
Learn more

Talking about water consumption: mistakes to avoid

An example of a misleading ad about the water consumed by a washing machine.
Read more

The evolution of environmental communication

We’ve seen the more technical and methodological aspects of environmental communication, which must be followed systematically. However, this doesn’t mean that a product can’t be described in a way that’s innovative, creative and engaging. To better serve our clients, we like to keep tabs on developments, creative and otherwise, in sustainability communications and consumer psychology. A few words of advice.

1 - Always talk about primary benefits

Only a minority of consumers is willing to pay more for a product with sustainable characteristics. In addition, especially for certain types of products, consumers associate lower effectiveness to products with a smaller environmental footprint. And most consumers are interested in the personal benefits of the product.

It’s a good rule to highlight the latter, along with those relating to sustainability. What are the primary benefits offered by the product? How will it improve the life of the consumer in terms of savings, less stress and increased pleasure?

2 - Stay positive!

Consumers are more likely to purchase an “ethical” product when positive emotions are communicated, compared to when guilt is used, juxtaposing that product with a less-ethical alternative. Guilt works only when the consumer is in a group and feels pressured to make a more morally acceptable choice. As soon as consumers are free to choose on their own, guilt only deters them from purchasing that item.

The best way to communicate is to make consumers feel good about the choice they're making, transmitting positive emotions.

3 - Transparency

Environmental communication and transparency are inseparable; they go hand-in-hand. A transparent company puts actions before words and promises; it’s honest about its sustainability policy; it doesn’t say it has a strategy if its efforts are limited to a few actions, a couple of products or meager results; it provides detailed and verifiable information about its impact; and it doesn’t hesitate to talk about the life cycle of its product(s), the origin of its raw materials, or the manufacturing process.

Promises should be supported by information, data, images and videos.

4 - The importance of a strategy

Those who work in sustainability, like any other corporate area, need a vision, a strategy, a plan of action, a monitoring system. Not sporadic efforts that are unrelated and disconnected, without guidance. Instead, a strategy is needed that ensures efficiency, recognizability of the plan, and the ability to communicate it continuously and consistently.

Maybe in the short term, or even in the medium term, consumers won’t notice the inconsistencies if a company is lacking a structured plan, and the company may even be praised for its efforts. However, it will never be esteemed and lauded for its good reputation in this area over the long term.

5 - Let go

Any company that has entered into dialog with its customers must also be ready to accept that they will not only praise it, but also criticize it, even dissect it, but that in some way they’ll make it their own. As Alex Wipperfürth wrote in Brand Hijack: “Let go of the fallacy that your brand belongs to you. It belongs to the market… Let the market hijack your brand.”

6 - Change people's habits

Marketing and communication in relation to sustainability are evolving, shifting people's attention from “get to know or try” to a change in collective behaviors. It’s a topic that’s as fascinating as it is vast. “Wisdom of the crowd,” collective intelligence, is the phenomenon in which individual behavior is influenced by the masses.

The fact that a specific action is adopted by many makes it a habit, the norm. How can we, as a company, encourage more sustainable collective behaviors, including our own?

7. Educate to the upsides of sustainability

Sustainability is often seen as a limit, a duty and a burden, by companies and consumers alike. Many enterprises have seized the opportunities that this way of thinking and acting presents, and many consumers are adopting a lifestyle that also has benefits, such as more quality-conscious, less stressful, healthier, more economical living.

If you highlight these aspects, if they are presented as pleasant habits, people will be more likely to adopt them. How can we help foster more-desirable, less-impactful habits?

8 - Creativity!

Sustainability is serious, but that doesn’t mean it has to be boring. There is a great need for communication that's also fun and inspiring.

A few examples of our work

We have a lot of experience in environmental communication. We’ve helped companies develop communication strategies, trained marketing departments on how to talk about sustainability, reviewed the contents of websites and ad campaigns, and obtained ecolabels and product category rules. Here are a few examples of our work.

PCRs (product category rules) for seats

If you work in the furniture industry, you might be interested in the PCRs for developing EPDs with the International EPD System, which we have been moderators of.
Learn more

PCR for moka coffee and espresso coffee

For coffee producers, here are the relevant product category rules for ground coffee (moka pot coffee and espresso).
Learn more

PCRs for the furniture industry

The reference for applying LCA methodology to furniture, except seats and mattresses, according to the International EPD System.
Learn more

Case study: Colorificio San Marco

Colorificio San Marco (the parent company of the San Marco Group) is one of Italy’s leaders in the production of paint for professional construction. Read more about part of its sustainability path.
Read more

Examples of successful marketing

For a little taste and some inspiration, we’ve gathered a few examples of successful international environmental communication:

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