Responsible communication: a cure for greenwashing?

pascale strubel
Oct 23, 2017 · 3 min read

With the launch end of October of Social Régie, “1st independent and solidarity-based advertising agency in France”, the French agency Econovia has taken a step further towards what is now called “responsible communication”.

In fact, after the wave of sustainable development, corporate social responsibility (CSR), the exponential development of companies with social and environmental impact, it is now the turn of communication to look for a new image, more solidary and more social.

Obliged to comply with CSR rules since the beginning of the 2000s, companies are multiplying the communication media in which they try to demonstrate their commitment to the environment, to the communities around them, to working conditions of their collaborators, their ethics, etc. Thus, annual reports, websites, videos, advertising campaigns must adapt to this new “green” wave.

On their side, agencies redouble their imagination and adapt words and messages to this new reality: green cars, green IT, clean energy, for products that are anything but clean or green. Visuals seize mountains (for cars), oceans (for oil companies), or stage wild animals in urban environments, etc. Nature invades advertising campaigns and creates confusion in people’s minds.

Even some logos become green even if the content of the products has changed: Mac Donalds, Ajax, Bonux for the most famous.

In its antigreenwashing guide[1]A small self-assessment guide of communication messages” published in 2012, the French Public Agency ADEME makes recommendations concerning the communication of companies, intended for both the advertiser and the agency, recommending that the last uses this guide to (among others) “gain in efficiency by looking for more sincere and more transparent modes of communication”.

The guide points out the three main techniques of greenwashing:

1. The excessive promise: the product is presented as completely ecological whereas only one of its elements is. Or the Sustainable Development approach is presented as an essential element of the company’s policy, whereas this is not the case.

2. The absence or insufficiency of information or argument: the ecological advantage or the approach is not explained or insufficiently so that one really understands in what he / she is and what is its qualitative and quantitative interest for the environment (or society).

3. A confused visual: the visual accompanying the message has a link with the ecology (wind, renewable energies, etc.) or Sustainable Development, but none with the product or approach mentioned, causing confusion in the spirit of consumer

The ADEME also indexes “non-eco-responsible” messages: vehicles represented in nature, incitation to excessive consumption, waste (driving without end), or denigration of an eco-responsible product (water current, for example).

Will the responsible communication agencies be tomorrow’s agencies?

“Traditional” agencies are now faced with new consultancy or communication structures, which present themselves as “responsible”. To name but a few: Econovia, (R) evolutionary agency; Limit, “I act so we are”; Tenzing, social economy firm or solidarity or Alter Ego, responsible purchasing. Smaller agencies, certainly, but committed and whose core business is CSR and Sustainable Development. It even happens that some of them refuse to work with advertisers whose ethics do not correspond to them!

For example, Régie Social[2] asks the advertiser to adhere to a Charter, through which it commits itself to be a responsible actor in the advertising market: “its commitment and its responsibilities towards nature are authentic. His messages will be sincere; his offer of products or services will be relevant to the three pillars of sustainable development (economic efficiency, social equity, environmental quality). He will respect the independence of the media in which he announces, “ can we read on its website.

According to two recent surveys[3], 75% of the people questioned do not watch television ads and 98% find that there are too many. The new approach to these responsible communication structures, totally uninhibited vis-à-vis the “traditional” agencies should lead them to question their ethics and especially to monitor very closely these new “communication start-ups”, without concession for their elders.

Pascale Strubel

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French version



[3] Survey OpinionWay for Sync (October 2017), survey Le Parisien (October 2017)

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