Companies that champion sustainability and pass the pub test

Some of Australia’s biggest names in business and retail are doing their best to sell themselves as champions of sustainability.

Are they doing a good job of selling that idea? More importantly, are they actually making a concrete contribution towards improving the health of our planet or simply engaging in the practice of ‘greenwashing’?

That word, greenwashing, is likely one you’ll hear more of over the next few years. It describes that practice of appearing to be behaving in an ethically sustainable way without actually doing so. Basically, ‘talking the talk’ but not ‘walking the walk’ when it comes to saving the planet.

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In the words of Ben Peacock, founder of sustainability impact agency Republic of Everyone: “Greenwash is essentially when your talk is bigger than your actions.”

What are our perceptions of the big retailers, and do those perceptions match the reality?

Mr Peacock’s group and a fellow agency commissioned a survey of more than 2000 Australians to find out which companies they thought were acting for good. What they found was perhaps surprising. Almost three out of every four respondents could not name a single brand or company they believe is helping to improve environmental or social issues in Australia.

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One company that made at least part of an impact with their campaign was Woolworths. One out of every five respondents nominated ‘Woolies’ as a brand that is striving towards a green and socially responsible future. But Woolworths chief grocery rival Coles was seen in the same light by only one in every 10 of those surveyed.

Why the difference? Could it be as simple as the colours used by each brand? When Woolworths (or Safeway as it was known in Victoria) updated its image in 2008, it changed its brand colours from red, green and white to an all green ‘W’ stylised as an apple, complete with leaf.

This change not only reinforced its slogan, ‘The Fresh Food People’, it marketed the company as a ‘green’ retailer. Coles, during this period, has clung steadfastly to its traditional red logo. Logos create first impressions only, of course, but first impressions are often lasting.

In more recent years, Woolworths have ramped up its ‘credentials’. In an ad that aired during last year’s Winter Olympics coverage, the retailer stated a commitment to being electricity carbon neutral by 2025.

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The ad made heavy use of the word ‘green’, not just in the sustainability sense but to spruik the fact that they offer free fruit to children – a concept clearly seen as socially responsible. The company’s 2021 Sustainability Report makes the same commitment, as well as zero food in landfill by 2025, a ‘carbon positive’ emissions outcome by 2050 and a “responsible stewardship of natural resources”.

The Woolworths campaign followed a similar one from Coles badged ‘Together to Zero’, which made similar promises on the same time scale. And yet only half as many respondents see Coles in the same responsible light as Woolworths.

Titled, Who Do You Believe?, the survey conducted by the Mobium Group found that clothing brand Cotton On was ranked next in line, although it was well behind both Woolies and Coles, with just one in 20 nominating the brand as socially responsible.

It would appear, therefore, that brands in general have a fair way to go in convincing the general public of their ethical credentials. While their efforts at cutting carbon emissions are laudable, they may attract more credibility if they refrain from surreptitiously changing package sizes, a practice on which we recently reported.

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Written by Andrew Gigacz