Brands Struggle to Get Sustainability Marketing Right

Over the last few years, a host of companies that once boldly touted their products’ sustainability credentials have quietly backed away from such claims, a response to a regulatory and reputational crackdown on greenwashing known as “greenhushing.”

Sephora appears to be taking the opposite approach.

Earlier this week, the LVMH-owned beauty retailer announced plans to double down on “clean” and “green” labels for brands whose products are free from certain ingredients or that meet specific environmental criteria. Though similar badges are already in use in some markets, the company is now planning to roll out a single set of programmes with tougher requirements worldwide.

It may have been emboldened by a ruling in New York earlier this month throwing out a class action suit that challenged the credibility of its “Clean by Sephora” seal. The fuzzy definition of “clean” has made the beauty buzzword a lightning rod for controversy, but a judge concluded that Sephora’s designation of products made without specific ingredients was sufficiently clear.

Now with plans to expand its climate-conscious and clean labelling schemes, the company said its aim is to bring more clarity, consistency and transparency to consumers looking to shop their values. The goal is to make more sustainable choices more accessible to consumers and brand partners, CEO and president Guillaume Motte said in a press release.

But it’s also a risk at a time when regulators appear to be taking an increasingly dim view of such sustainability marketing.

Less than 48 hours after Sephora unveiled its plans at a climate summit in Paris, fast fashion companies Asos and Boohoo committed to tighten up consumer-facing sustainability claims following a greenwashing investigation by the UK’s competition watchdog. One area of focus: labelling schemes.

Last month, German e-tailer Zalando agreed to remove “misleading” sustainability icons from products following a two-year-long probe by EU officials. Regulators have warned the industry should be on notice to ensure any claims are properly backed up.

Sephora did not provide comment.

The New Rules of Sustainability Marketing

The issue with labelling schemes, regulators say, is that they often lack transparency and precision, leaving consumers with a false sense of a product’s better climate credentials. To avoid the risk of misleading shoppers, it’s necessary to be specific about exactly how an item is more ethical or environmentally responsible.

“The key thing about very broad labels such as ‘eco’ or ‘sustainable’ or ‘better for the planet’ is that it creates an expectation that the product will not have a negative impact on the planet,” said Cecilia Parker Aranha, director of consumer protection at the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority. That’s not a claim that’s easy to back up, especially when considering a product’s full life cycle. “That’s why we think for most businesses at the moment precision is likely to be a better way to go,” she said.

Sephora’s revamped sustainability labels were two years in the making, put together with a team of environmental and scientific experts, the company said in its press release. They’ll apply to brands, rather than products, and to qualify companies will need to meet a minimum of 32 criteria across ingredient sourcing and formulation, packaging, corporate climate commitments and consumer transparency. Instead of “Planet Positive” (the old framing for its US brand badges), qualifying companies will be dubbed “Planet Aware.”

Programmes with high integrity can be a useful tool, not only to communicate with consumers, but to push the whole industry forward, said Elizabeth Sturcken, managing director for corporate partnerships at climate advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund, which has worked with Sephora on its clean ingredients strategy.

“Greenhushing is real for companies,” said Sturcken. “We really need to get everyone on this journey, and it has to be seen as something that is compelling from a business perspective, a brand perspective and a brand engagement perspective.”

With newer and tougher regulations around sustainability marketing continuing to grow, nailing that triple win can seen mind-bogglingly complex. Companies are likely to be closely watching how moves like Sephora’s are received and where watchdogs turn their attention next. In the UK, the CMA is also investigating Unilever for greenwashing and has put brands on notice that policy moves that could result in much stiffer penalties are in the works.

“It is becoming increasingly risky for companies to make bold claims about safety or sustainability without backing them up,” said Lindsay Dahl, chief impact officer at supplement brand Ritual, former head of mission at Beautycounter and a long-time advocate for clearer definitions for “clean” and “sustainable” beauty. “Ultimately that’s a good thing; rather than companies silencing themselves, the antidote is just to talk to consumers more about it,” she said.



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(Getty Images)

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Compiled by Yola Mzizi

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