Five steps to avoid greenwashing

Five steps to avoid greenwashing

Creating a successful sustainability story can be a difficult task for sports organisations. The goal is to keep it SMART, seek out partnerships and leverage what you know, says Kristen Fulmer

We’ve all seen it: food labels advertising unverified ‘All Natural’ claims. Products that are ‘recycled’ without publishing a specific percentage. Even company logos designed with elements such as leaves to evoke more sustainable qualities without following the practices to back it up.

These are basic examples of greenwashing – the act of deceptively persuading the public that an organisation’s products or policies are environmentally friendly and therefore ‘better’. 

It can also be seen in ‘green’ marketing and PR as companies feel pressure from the public to play their part for the environment.

Global climate-related challenges are becoming unavoidable topics for all organisations to discuss, including those in the sports industry. Teams and leagues are starting to make commitments, stadiums are making sustainable upgrades and companies are hiring dedicated and qualified staff.

While these types of policies will promote the sustainability, resilience and wellbeing of a sports organisation, the reality is these are systemic changes that require support from people in leadership roles and some financial investment.

Taking these steps can be intimidating, and often lead to paralysis. Companies aren’t sure what to do and sometimes end up doing nothing at all. But organisations wanting to position themselves as green and sustainable have to face these challenges head on, in a meaningful, impactful way.

Easier said than done, right? To get started, here are five tips to write a successful sustainability story that avoids greenwashing:

1. Commit to sustainability goals

Just like career development goals, a company’s sustainability goals must be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time based. 

The goals will guide everything else in your sustainability story, so they must be solidified early in the process. Though each component of a SMART goal is critical to its success, sports organisations should be particularly mindful that goals are ‘Relevant.’ To be successful, a goal must align to the organisation’s mission and relate to work that is already underway, while challenging business-as-usual practices to effect positive change.

PRO TIP: Use an existing framework to help guide the creation of goals. There are many environmental and social sustainability frameworks that are oriented to a specific industry, topic, or platform. Before broadcasting a commitment, try to align to a framework that makes sense.

2. Develop an action plan

An action plan is the “how to” section of the sustainability goals. This step is critical to effectively delivering on those goals, which becomes the first step to avoiding greenwashing. The best action plans are SMART, with strategies that are gradual and tied to a timeline.

Sustainability goals can often be stringent and tied to an unattainable timeline. They are successful in catalysing action, but often put unnecessary strain on organisations, not allowing for iterative improvements or the integration of lessons learned. The action plan is the tool to ‘check-out’ how SMART the sustainability goals really are.

PRO TIP: The action plan should be produced and distributed in tandem with the goals to ensure that goals are actionable. This will avoid frustration and resentment in creating the goals and will produce more efficient results.

3. Streamline existing policies and contracts

Action plans must be holistic and multi-disciplinary across an organisation, integrating all teams that may be involved in delivering on the goals. One of the most actionable strategies for an action plan is to streamline new sustainability-related policies into existing policies in contracts. This way, the sustainability strategies are integrated into efforts that are familiar to the relevant teams. This is a way to begin to effect change with minimal training and costs.

PRO TIP: When questioning who is involved in delivering the goals, the answer is typically ‘everyone.’ Develop a list of stakeholders for the project or initiative and think of a way that they’re related and can be guided to more sustainable action through policies

4. Facilitate strategic partnerships           

Facilitating partnerships – AKA building a team – is not a new concept to the sports world. In team-based sports, each athlete contributes specific skills, experience, and approach to the game. In this scenario, each player leverages the reasons that they are playing, ultimately driving to the greater goal and mission. Each player is celebrated and appreciated in their own way, but ultimately the goal is more achievable when they work together. The same is true with implementing action plans that lead towards sustainability goals.

Organisations with successful sustainability stories would agree that it is critical to leverage partnerships. They may also agree that addressing all facets of an action plan is more difficult to do by themselves. The benefit of the sports industry is that many of these partnerships already exist. When identifying eligible partnerships, the first step is to identify eligible existing partners, including sponsors, vendors, athletes, and supporting organisations.

PRO TIP: Crowdsourcing is a great supplemental ‘partner’ to many strategies within action plans. In sport, this can quite literally start with current fans and spectators.

5. Leverage what you know

Delivering a sustainability story is more challenging when actionable goals are not relatable to the current organisation’s larger mission. If previous sustainability efforts have been unsuccessful, there are many types of approaches to execute those strategies. Only the organisation will have that history and it should be leveraged throughout the goal-planning and action plan-setting process.

In addition to what doesn’t work, it’s equally critical to leverage successful strategies in the organisation. For example, if a specific type of promotion produced additional revenue, an integration of sustainability for that type of promotion may be a successful, actionable event to help achieve a goal in the future.

PRO TIP: Doing anything is better than doing nothing. Start telling your sustainability story by taking a small first step… And keep it SMART.

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