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InTechnology Podcast

Greenwashing: The Red Flag of Sustainability (141)

In this episode of InTechnology, Camille and Tom get into greenwashing with Caryn Herder Fritz, Intel Marketing Initiatives Group’s Sustainability Initiative Lead. Their conversation covers how companies must avoid greenwashing by balancing between addressing consumers’ values about sustainability without making misleading claims via marketing, as well as how the standards in reporting and communicating sustainability efforts are currently being developed.

To find the transcription of this podcast, scroll to the bottom of the page.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the guests and author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Intel Corporation.

Follow our hosts Tom Garrison @tommgarrison and Camille @morhardt.

Learn more about Intel Cybersecurity and the Intel Compute Life Cycle (CLA).

How to Avoid Greenwashing

As Caryn explains in her conversation with Tom and Camille, greenwashing is a term to describe when companies make a claim about an environmental product or activity that can be misleading within a consumer’s mind. This issue has become so prevalent to the point where a UK study found over 80% of participants did not trust corporate sustainability environmental effort communications.

The cause of consumer distrust for the marketing of corporate sustainability stems from a number of factors. The first is how some companies often get away with making ambitious sustainability claims by staying just barely within legal terms. However, Caryn highlights another factor is the lack of differentiation in messaging. When all companies are making the same claims about sustainability, how can consumers know which companies are genuine or which goals are even realistic?

One solution Caryn offers for avoiding greenwashing is to ground sustainability messaging in a company’s subject matter expertise and then combine that with how that niche is addressing one aspect of sustainability. Another solution she offers is to make the messaging more personal by directly addressing the values of consumers.

Standards for Reporting and Communicating Sustainability

Just as standards for security are ever-evolving, so, too, are standards for reporting and communicating about corporate sustainability. Caryn shares how within the semiconductor industry, there is great collaboration going on to measure the scope and set necessary standards for sustainability, like how to accurately measure a product’s carbon footprint. Government and investment organizations are also getting involved in this process.

While Caryn states that over 80% of corporate enterprises are producing sustainability reports in the form of ESG or CSR reports, these are self-imposed and not consistent across the industry and thus easy to fall into greenwashing. Caryn stresses the importance of consumers doing their own research into how companies report their sustainability efforts. Are they walking the talk?

Caryn Herder Fritz, Sustainability Initiative Lead for Cross-Intel Initiative Marketing at Intel Corporation

Caryn Herder Fritz greenwashing

Caryn started her now 30-year career in marketing by studying journalism at the University of Oregon. She then moved on to various senior and management marketing positions at global companies like Lockheed Martin and CMD. Initially joining Intel in 2021 as a Messaging Strategist for Cross Portfolio Marketing, Caryn now spearheads Intel’s sustainability messaging as the Sustainability Initiative Lead for Cross-Intel Initiative Marketing.

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[00:00:29] Tom Garrison: Hi, and welcome to the InTechnology podcast. I’m your host Tom Garrison and with me today as always is my co-host, Camille Morhardt. And today we have Caryn Herder Fritz, who is the Intel Sustainability Initiative Lead across Intel Marketing Initiatives Group. So welcome to the podcast, Caryn.

[00:00:50] Caryn Herder Fritz: Thanks, Tom. Great to be here.

[00:00:52] Tom Garrison: Well, the topic we want to tackle today is what in the industry is called greenwashing. And before we go too far into the specific topic at hand, I think it probably makes sense to just talk about some of the challenges that a company has when they are trying to position themselves in the industry across all of the other people that are out there talking about the great things that they’re doing for sustainability. What are some of the challenges that companies face in order to tell their story out to customers?

[00:01:32] Caryn Herder Fritz: The big challenge is what you just said. There’s a sea of sameness, because we’ve lived in this world of reporting our corporate activities for the past decade or so. That’s where every company has lived. And then we started taking more goals, and then we started talking about the goals. That’s the big challenge, is everyone’s talking about the same things. And so when we try in marketing to find that effective differentiation, it’s a real struggle, and yet it’s an opportunity if we focus a little bit and make sure we stay out of the greenwashing conversations. Because honestly, that’s where the whole market is right now, is really skewing to the greenwashing goal hype, so to speak.

[00:02:18] Tom Garrison: From your perspective, in your role, what is it that customers are looking for in terms of messages from their prospective suppliers and whatnot? What are the things that do matter that you find are important for us to be able–when we’re telling our story–that we want to make sure we include that in our positioning?

[00:02:41] Caryn Herder Fritz: What matters to a consumer is different than what matters to someone that’s working in healthcare, that matters to someone that’s working in an industrial manufacturing scenario. That’s the challenge for us is, we need to understand what people value, not just what their companies are asking them to do, because that’s important. We need to understand what their goal is, but we also need to understand their values. And everyone is an individual that is bringing their personal values into their role at work.

And so when we understand how people are prioritizing sustainability and what parts of sustainability are important to them, and then you combine that with, well, what’s their company asking them to do for their jobs? That’s the sweet spot, and that’s what they want to hear is that a company understands their thinking, understands what they need to accomplish, but also can go on that journey with them and help them push things forward. Because many times a lot of our customers and companies, they’re pushing this ball up the hill by themselves, because there aren’t any department or company mandates yet. So they’re bringing that value in and they’re trying to bring sustainability grassroots in the company. So it’s when we understand the complete person and what they’re trying to accomplish, that’s when we win.

[00:04:11] Tom Garrison: I do think it’s important for maybe some people that have heard the term but aren’t really familiar with what is it, can you give your definition of what greenwashing is?

[00:04:21] Caryn Herder Fritz: It’s a spectrum, but greenwashing is making a claim around an environmental product or activity that can be misleading within a consumer or in a buyer’s mind. And I’d also offer there’s another term that’s come up that we really do care about, and it’s called graywashing. And because we’re all so concerned about greenwashing, we move to the point where we’re using our legal teams as the backstops to say, “Is this message legal? What’s our risk in saying this?” without understanding the customer connection, so then it becomes this blah message in the market. And that’s where all marketers should be concerned is taking it to the extreme that we want to make sure it’s so true that it lacks any inspiration, any creativity, any motivation. And that’s a challenge for all of us marketers, is to make sure we don’t fall in the graywashing space. So we’ve got a greenwashing spectrum and we also have this other path we could go down that makes the message so rigid that no one’s going to care about it.

[00:05:37] Camille Morhardt: So I want to know how you spot greenwashing, like when you’re reading through a report or on a website, what kind of thing do you keep an eye out for that lets you decide when to be suspect?

[00:05:49] Caryn Herder Fritz: That’s interesting, because there’s a range of greenwashing. Gartner has created a tool to actually help people understand, because just because something is legal, it could still be greenwashing; because as I said, we are moving out of that reporting world into the marketing world. Now there’s new rigors with FCC and such that it cannot be misleading. While it might be true, it could still be misleading.

And then once again, the last final mile in a greenwashing hurdle is, is it important to the customer? Because we’re seeing research now that will show, out of the UK Wort just did a study, 81% of all company sustainability environmental effort communications, 81% are not trusted by the audiences, because when everyone is saying the same thing, no one is trusting any of it. Trust is this huge factor. And part of the trust issues are coming with all of the media coverage around the fraud in the marketplace from buying carbon offsets and the realities of, there’s only so many renewable energy credits that can be purchased in certain countries. And the consumers, they know what’s going on out there in the world. Someone had estimated it’s going to take three planets to deliver all of the carbon offsets that companies are promising with all their goals.

[00:07:20] Tom Garrison: And isn’t it true, to Camille’s earlier question, your antennas should be on high alert when you’re hearing something that just sounds too good to be true or the best or the first or the whatever?

[00:07:33] Caryn Herder Fritz: Absolutely. I would also offer just the word green is another area to look out for, because green has that instant connection. Mostly consumers will connect it to the environment. But green also triggers in people’s mind greenwashing. So they then they’re all, “Oh, there’s another green product again.” So all of a sudden the green, even that word, has the same effect of those superlatives you’re talking about.

[00:08:04] Camille Morhardt: Are there any guardrails or guidelines that can help people in marketing stay between greenwashing and graywashing? So for example, stick to your knitting. If you’re in manufacturing, you should really be addressing sustainability or actions within the context of manufacturing. Or if you’re in retail, you should be addressing them from the context of retail, rather than say, trying to talk about sustainability or initiatives in a much broader capacity or scope.

[00:08:37] Caryn Herder Fritz: So they’re saying the same things as they all have–net zero goals; they’re all using renewable electricity; they’re all looking for zero waste to landfill, and they’re all working on water overall. These are things that we found in our discovery and ongoing research. They’re table stakes. It’s an expected of companies.

So your point as far as sticking to your knitting, absolutely. We are seeing the research and we tested some of our messaging where we tried to go beyond the world of computing. And quite honestly, we got put back in a box of, stick to what you guys can own, what you can do, because this is such a big problem that no one company can go tackle this whole thing. And technology has a place in combating climate change, but it’s not the only thing that needs to happen. We need a lot of investments, we need new fuels, we need new food sources and such. It’s not all technology. Technology is a big player in solving climate crisis, but it’s not the only one. So in our test, the believable messages were the ones that were grounded in our subject matter expertise of computing. So when we combine computing with the environment in our work in the environment, those are believable. We stretch the bounds, that’s when we start get that greenwashing.

[00:10:00] Tom Garrison: Because there isn’t a real holistic way to measure sustainability and whatnot, you get companies that just talk about small bits of the total story, and they try to blow it out, make it seem like the most important aspect or whatever, to make themself look great. But that is in and of itself misleading and it doesn’t really tell the story. And for customers, they’re not experts themselves, so they just don’t believe anybody. Is that part of the problem?

[00:10:35] Caryn Herder Fritz: You’re spot on. And when you pick that wrong small thing to blow up and it is not what the customer values, then it’s a double hit. You are greenwashing because you don’t want to talk to me about what I really care about. It’s a fine line. Now, can we make some things matter to people if we believe that small thing is so important? That, you have to overcome; you’ve got to change thinking, you have to change status quo. That takes more time.

[00:11:07] Tom Garrison: Where are we as an industry in being able to talk about the whole story in a way that is, I want to use the word standardized, but there’s sort of an understood complete accounting. There’s a way to talk about it so that when somebody says, “I deliver X value in sustainability,” there is a framework by which you can understand what is it that they’re talking about. Without that today, it just feels like people can just sort of spray and pray when it comes to claims and just hope that one of those claims sticks that people care about.

[00:11:47] Caryn Herder Fritz: Exactly. And that’s why our industries are trying… The semiconductor industry is working together. They’re launching a consortium to can we really work on how we measure scope three collectively as an industry. There’s work going on with MIT to try to get to how do you measure product carbon footprint. I know we’re working with other industry consortiums, because there do need to be those industry standards and all of the industry players need to participate in creating those standards.

Then on the other end, we’ve got our governments that are also seeing, yeah, how do you have an apples-to-apples comparison on anything? And most of that’s grounded right now in the investment world because ESG investing has taken off and it’s really hot. Yet no one can really understand if any of these funds are performing. So that’s why a lot of the government regs are coming in, because they want to see apples to apples reporting. And I think when we get to those worlds, Tom, it will kind of level set some of that and will take away a little of the greenwashing. But then once again, we still have to bring that rigor back in to, “All right, but let’s make sure we’re messaging the things that customers really care about and that they value.”

[00:13:00] Camille Morhardt: As we get more and more standardized, or at least generally accepted frameworks in our metrics around sustainability, how do you think companies are going to differentiate? Is it going to be just a question of how close are you, say, to net zero, and one company is further or less far than another? Or do you see companies trying to set up different kinds of metrics so that they can measure themselves or differentiate themselves relative to another company rather than going toward that baseline?

[00:13:33] Caryn Herder Fritz: I think it’s both, because you do have to show that you are collaborating, that you’re an active participant in the world, not just within the industry, but as a multinational company. All of our stakeholders expect us to be an active global participant in the communities in which we operate as well. So they’re looking at activities, we can differentiate there, but it also has to be on product. And it still goes back to what products the customers need.

And that’s where we’re still trying to understand what’s the tipping point of when customers will put green, as you would say it, as the number one purchase driver, versus right now it’s an and. If you meet all my other criteria and it’s green, wonderful; but consumers, they haven’t been paying for this for over a decade. And Bill Gates talks about the green premium and that we have to understand where that green premium value is.

Or there’s many of them are saying, “We’re going to take costs out of this as well, because the planet just needs this.” And that’s what we’re hearing from a lot of the consumers; they expect all of these products to be environmentally sustainable, but they don’t want to have to pay more for it. They believe that’s how every product should be. Once again, that’s the value system that they have right now. Everyone doesn’t really understand when it will tip to be that people will pay for it. And I think a lot of people and a lot of companies are doing a lot of research around that to try to predict, and I just think today’s economic environment puts a little hitch in trying to figure that out.

[00:15:19] Camille Morhardt: One way to check on this is through reports. I’m thinking about security right now and how even though there’s not a lot of agreed upon standards globally or measurements, one thing that’s become more and more common is actually for companies to report. So they’re saying what they believe is important, and then they’re reporting how far along they are against their own deliverables or their own metrics. So you can at least decide for yourself whether you agree with their metrics from the get go, and then you can see how far along they are in implementing to those. And I’m wondering, is that something that’s relevant in the sustainability space also, and how common is that now?

[00:16:04] Caryn Herder Fritz: Over 80% of corporate enterprises are reporting at this point in time. They’re either an ESG report or a CSR report, corporate social responsibility report. Some companies actually issue separate environment reports. So those reports do give a great window into the goals and the progress against the goals. I still encourage people to unpack a little further and just go on their websites to look for different videos, like we show the actual water restoration projects so people can understand, “No, we’re really working in India, we’re really working in these other communities that we’re operating in,” because just the report sometimes doesn’t make a connection for someone, because you’re reporting for a government and customers are still looking for a deeper connection.

[00:16:56] Tom Garrison: Well, and I think that also people don’t necessarily have a full comprehension of what does it mean for a product from a given company. For example, we’ve talked about this before from Intel, where Intel is one of the few companies that does everything from designing the chips to building the factories that those chips get built in. We build the chips themself and then we sell them out to our customers.

Most people that build chips, they design their chips and then they give it to somebody else to manufacture for them. And so when that company reports the activities that they’re doing and whatnot on their chips, they’re really telling the story about a piece of the puzzle as opposed to the entirety of, “Oh, you know what? When they hand it off to that other manufacturer, that other manufacturer is a very dirty manufacturer.” Of course they’re never going to tell you that, right? And so there’s that understanding of, again, what does it take to build a complete product as opposed to the little piece of the pie that a company would be inclined to share that may not tell the whole story.

[00:18:14] Caryn Herder Fritz: Great point, Tom. And I think also that Intel, we’re reporting on how our products are used, and we don’t have complete control over how a consumer is using that laptop, but we’re modeling it out and we are trying to think about our carbon footprint across the products. We’re a company that’s taking it incredibly seriously in trying to think about that entire product footprint.

[00:18:41] Camille Morhardt: It sounds like that’s another way that we can start looking out for greenwashing is making sure that when companies are putting forward the activities they’re doing, it’s within an actual use case that we might encounter, and how well is the activity or the sustainable activity running in these conditions that are going to be common in that industry or in that company, for example.

[00:19:05] Caryn Herder Fritz: Exactly. And that’s where I’m hoping that the market really gets to when we get to industry standard product carbon footprints, and that they’ll also include the second life of that product as more and more of the hardware will get reused. That also attributes to that whole carbon footprint. So I think those are the things that our industry’s tackling and hopefully will get there to help people think about that entire lifecycle when they’re looking at the carbon.

[00:19:35] Tom Garrison: I’m curious for people that are trying to market for their own company, or maybe they’re a consumer looking in technology and they’re trying to get smarter on these sustainability claims and what matters, what doesn’t matter, those kinds of things. Is there a place that they can go to get smarter, to get help in this space?

[00:19:57] Caryn Herder Fritz: Tom, unfortunately there’s no one place and there’s no set standard. So you can get smarter on one topic, but it’s still not going to help them compare in their shopping, because we don’t have those set standards. But there are webinars on this topic, daily almost. If you want to learn about the broader ESG investing, there’s those types of webinars with Bloomberg and Reuters, and there’s climate tech and learning about all the new inventions that are going on to try to remove carbon from the planet. Because that’s the best part, the media’s covering it everywhere. The conundrum is, how do you filter that to help you make a buying decision? I just encourage everyone, go and make sure that the brand you’re buying from are actually acting, not just talking, that they’re walking the talk.

[00:20:54] Tom Garrison: It was a great first step to have the conversation about greenwashing, and hopefully we raised the awareness at least in the listeners, what to look out for and what to be careful about. So thanks for your time, it was a great topic, and maybe we’ll have you back in the future.

[00:21:09] Caryn Herder Fritz: Nice talking with you guys.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the guests and author, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Intel Corporation.

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