Advertising a brand’s sustainability credentials on its packaging is becoming an increasingly common practice. Yet the impact that these claims could have on the brand itself is rarely considered – and unclear, unfounded, or incorrect details can cost a company its consumers’ trust and loyalty. Cathy Teasdale, co-founder of !mpatience, tells us why, and how educational conversations between companies and consumers could rectify the problem.

There are three main dangers to putting sustainability claims on packaging: consumers failing to understand the claim, leading to undesirable confusion; the brand benefit becoming undermined; and consumers assuming that a brand is greenwashing, or jumping on a bandwagon to make sustainability claims without following through.

The science surrounding environmental claims can be baffling to anyone who is not an expert, and the lack of consistent standards and measures for sustainability claims does not help. This can prove overwhelming for the average person, who has an average repertoire of up to 250-300 grocery items and countless other purchases beyond that.

In addition, including a metric that might be important to achieving company sustainability targets may not be so important to a brand, or indeed, the end consumer. Case in point: carbon reduction is an often quoted but oblique ambition. Its various measurements can be difficult to understand, as those outside the packaging industry might not be familiar with production processes.

Some products are considered by consumers to be the obvious choice for carbon labelling – cars are closely linked with high usage of fossil fuels, computers with intensive manufacturing, and fridges with the high amounts of energy they use. However, the link becomes more tenuous for less obvious and lower impact products, e.g., chocolate or cosmetics. Our consumer research tells us that linking them to carbon raises alarm bells for the average shopper.

Consumers are not yet knowledgeable enough to fully engage with carbon claims, and they can become overwhelmed by an inconsistent approach. Brands who want to use carbon claims to demonstrate their environmental credentials must recognise there are no shortcuts – an on-pack claim is a quick fix that will have, at best, little positive benefit or, at worst, potentially damaging effects. Consumers may not understand the information they are given, try to make sense of it with the knowledge they do have, and reach the wrong conclusion, which could threaten a brand’s integrity.

Our face-to-face discussions with consumers around the globe highlighted the negative effect that misunderstood sustainability claims can have. The least damaging effect is that they quickly lose interest and stop trying to understand the information. The recent 2022 Mintel Sustainability Barometer confirms that consumers’ interest in on-pack carbon labels has declined substantially since 2021.

Sensitivity to greenwashing is also clear; over a third (38%) of consumers do not trust companies to be honest about their environmental impact. Other studies show that 55% of Gen Z does not believe in sustainability claims at all.

Indeed, a myriad of companies from packaged goods to fashion are being tripped up by the pitfalls of greenwashing. H&M recently experienced significant backlash over alleged false claims rooted in unclear, perhaps even misleading metrics. That widespread erosion of brand equity, trust, and loyalty is likely underreported by a number of brands.

Companies need to recognise they have a responsibility to educate their consumers if they wish to leverage their sustainability achievements on-pack. This means using packaging as a gateway for education, not just a flashy new claim. QR codes could allow brands to invite their consumers on their sustainability journey, and to offer a clear roadmap of their efforts without resulting in meaningless claims.

Leveraging QR codes could also enable an ongoing dialogue between brand and consumer whereby different sustainability targets are spotlighted, the impact of consumer choice and action is demonstrated, and the brand’s sustainability progress is brought to life. Being transparent and providing a clear explanation would curtail the three pitfalls before they become a problem.

Marketing must not treat sustainability like a competitive lever to pull. Rather, it should take the time to pause and consider their industry, brand, and audience’s relationships with environmental issues before rushing into ineffectual action.