Is your CSR strategy guilty of greenwashing?

Environmental sustainability is one of the most pressing issues of our time. In response, the British government has set an ambitious climate target by committing to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. By 2025, all new homes will be banned from installing gas boilers, and no new cars running on fossil fuels will be produced in the UK after 2030. The world is changing, and in turn, many business models are changing too.

In the past Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) was driven by legislation and regulation. Now, it is increasingly being driven by consumer expectations and reputation, placing CSR firmly front and centre of many brands’ business strategies.

Consumer insights show that many people even value sustainability over short-term benefits such as reduced cost. A key example of this can be seen in the energy industry, where 47% of consumers would pay more for 100% renewable energy.

A new international study by Unilever reveals that a third of consumers are now choosing to buy from brands they believe are doing social or environmental good.

The world is changing, and with it consumer attitudes are changing too

Increasing numbers of people are quite rightly concerned about the environment, but with all the headlines surrounding single-use plastics, green energy and electric vehicles, they are getting pretty good at spotting companies that overstate their green credentials, in order to boost sales. 43% of 16-24 year olds who aren’t aware of what CSR is, are willing to pay a premium for a brand that has a positive impact on the environment or society, compared to only 31% of 55-64 year olds.

The UK’s competition watchdog, the Competition and Markets Authority, has been investigating whether brands that market their products as ‘eco-friendly’ and other green credentials are misleading consumers and breaking the law. Competition and Markets Authority Chief Executive Andrea Coscelli said; “Our role is to make sure that consumers can trust the claims they see…and don’t fork out extra for items falsely presented as eco-friendly”.

In a 2020 trend report by Global Web Index, 84% said a poor environmental track record would or might cause them to stop buying from a brand. With statistics like this, there is mounting evidence that failing to place CSR at the heart of an organisation’s brand strategy, could result in consumers disengaging with a brand, or a damaged reputation.

Brands whose CSR strategies have landed them in hot water

Ryanair came under fire in 2020, when the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) called them out for using outdated information to claim it was the UK’s lowest emission airline. The statistics used didn’t include all rival airlines and were based on data that was nearly a decade out of date. As a result the advertising was banned, but not before the airline’s reputation was damaged.

Brands can also be viewed as hypocritical if they’re seen to only be implementing CSR strategy on an external level, whilst not reflecting on communicating what more could be done internally. You can avoid your company’s good deeds turning into bad press, by scrutinising the entire organisation and its supply chain.

It’s not just greenwashing that causes problems

Jumping on the band wagon of popular social causes can also backfire, unless the campaign values are closely aligned with your brand’s core values and address issues facing your specific industry. It’s imperative that your cause also aligns with your audience’s principles.

Shaving brand Gillette misjudged their audience, coming in for both praise and abuse when it changed its strapline from ‘The best a man can get’ to ‘The best a man can be’. Some saw the accompanying advert as highlighting masculine toxicity and being demasculating. Many saw the campaign as a cheap bid to sell razors off the back of the #metoo movement. Negative responses far outnumbered positive ones on their Youtube channel, showing that the step change made by a brand, which had always profited from masculinity, had just confused its customers.

As recently as September 2021, audience backlash over the announcement of a reality TV show The Activist, caused an immediate reformatting of production. Originally the show’s premise asked activists to pitch against one another for the opportunity to win funding for their causes. As soon as it was announced, the show was accused of being tone-deaf and completely missing the point of supporting activism. But since the overwhelming complaints, the show is being reimagined to more fairly support a range of causes and use the series to showcase their efforts, rather than profit from the entertainment style show that was originally proposed.

Consumers quickly punish brands who they suspect of inauthenticity or behaving unethically, often through online petitions and boycotts. And rebuilding brand trust following negative press is a difficult task.

Who is utilising CSR successfully?

Overnight, on the eve of International Women’s Day 2017, a ‘Fearless girl’ statue appeared opposite the New York Stock Exchange Building. It was part of a campaign by US asset management company, State Street Global Advisors. Its aim of starting a conversation about the importance of gender diversity in corporate leadership, was a good fit with the brand’s mission to ‘invest responsibly to enable economic prosperity and social progress’.

Of the biggest global brands, Nike is renowned for having a strong social focus in its advertising, helped by a $3.11 billion annual marketing strategy.

They were also one of the first big brands to respond to unrest in the US, following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. Putting a spin on its famous motto, Nike said: “For once, don’t do it. Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America. Don’t turn your back on racism”.

This followed the brand’s earlier controversial ad featuring the ex-NFL quarterback, Colin Kaepernick – best known for kneeling during the National Anthem – which won them a 1,400% surge in social media activity and earned $6 billion in sales (2018).


87% of consumers would purchase a product based on a company supporting a cause that they felt passionate about.


Not all CSR comms investments are on the scale of Nike’s. So, how can you breathe life into your CSR strategy?

Authenticity is key. You can still celebrate and communicate your CSR achievements, without looking like you’re bragging, or worse, misleading your audience. Don’t overstate your claims when telling your stakeholders and customers about your good deeds, and always be clear about your goals and long-term commitments.

At Michon, we have nearly four decades of experience in offering CSR consultancy, helping companies to communicate with a variety of audiences in engaging and innovative ways.

To find out about how we can help you, or to see how we’ve helped companies like yours, get in touch with us today. Alternatively, check out our article: Is your CSR strategy right for your audience? And for the latest marketing and branding insight visit our Articles page.