Sustainability Marketing in the Age of AI: Navigating Greenwashing and Leveraging Intelligence

by | Oct 10, 2023 | Uncategorized

Greenwashing stands as one of the foremost issues and challenges within the realm of sustainability marketing.  Companies overstating sustainability initiatives, or misleading people around their positive environmental or social action is hindering real change being driven. For purpose-driven marketers, it’s super frustrating to witness. 

Recently, there’s been a lot of discussion around the ethics of AI, for a multitude of reasons. But its role in greenwashing, driving climate action, and facilitating the move to a regenerative society is fundamental to talk about.

Chat GPT has over 100 million monthly active users. So the odds that many businesses use it to develop their marketing communications materials are high., It’s completely fair that the tool is leveraged in this way – it enables teams to maximise resources, and obtain centred responses to queries. It can be the definition of working smarter. But is this the case when using AI to communicate sustainability in marketing?

Sustainability can be an overwhelming topic to approach, and many businesses find it tricky to know what’s best in communicating their existing, or future initiatives. This is where businesses may be inclined to leverage AI for ‘sustainable marketing’, and the results can be, quite frankly, pretty shocking. 

So, let’s explore the pros and cons of AI’s relationship with greenwashing and sustainability, along with what the future of this rapidly evolving industry entails.


Is ChatGPT helping companies greenwash?

As a marketing agency, we’ve actually found AI extremely helpful in some cases. If you prompt it wisely and take a critical view, you can really refine the extensive wealth of information it can provide. It can be great. But our inspiration to explore the relationship between AI and greenwashing a little deeper came from frustrations we’ve found in much of its phrasing. 

So, for the purposes of demonstrating why we’ve got concerns, we asked ChatGPT to write us a post advertising our services. This is what we got: 

 Now, we know we’re experts at this, but were not impressed. Here’s why: 

    • We didn’t mention anything about our clients or the industries we’re in, but we received run of the mill phrasing and, what feels like to us, flippant greenwashing. 
    • For example, what is ‘Sustainable Branding’? It’s the business initiatives, products or services that make a brand genuinely sustainable, not the branding. 
    • We could also communicate a business’s renewable energy initiatives, but we’re sorry to break that it’s not a service we provide ourselves. 
    • The ‘brighter, greener future’ also gave us the ick in a big way. 

We might sound harsh, and we understand that many businesses and marketers alike can use AI as a springboard for their communications to get the ball rolling, and not go for the full copy and paste, but some are. This in turn, can make it difficult for people to decipher what’s true and what’s not regarding a business’s sustainability claims. 


Why is greenwashing difficult to identify?

Even to some of those in the sustainability industry, greenwashing can be tricky to spot, because it can be done very well, be open to debate, and a range of other factors. These include: 

    1. Lack of Regulation – Globally, there is currently a lack of consistent and universally accepted regulations verifying  ‘green’ claims, both creating confusion and hindering efforts to hold companies accountable.
    2. Lack of Transparency – Companies sometimes don’t provide the necessary information to substantiate their green claims, blurring information and making it difficult to understand.
    3. Overstating claims – Some companies can be deceptive in their communications by exaggerating the extent of their social or environmental efforts in a bid to attract consumers, undermining the credibility of their sustainability claims as a whole.
    4. Complexity of ‘Sustainability’ Issues – Very often, both social and environmental issues are complex and multifaceted, making it challenging to quantify ‘good’ or ‘bad’ impact of a product or service.
    5. Limited Consumer Awareness – A lack of widespread sustainability education means that many consumers may not be fully informed about the environmental impact of products, and may not understand how to evaluate sustainability claims.

The complications don’t stop there, but it outlines why greenwashing remains to be so rife. So, in terms of brands using AI for sustainability communication, there needs to be extreme care taken in utilising these tools when it comes to discussing environmental or social initiatives.  

We’re not saying we all need to close our Chat GPT accounts, far from it, actually. To stay relevant, businesses have to adapt, and part of this is inevitably AI. But it’s how we leverage it that matters. So we’ll give you our tips for getting the most out of AI for marketing sustainability initiatives: 

    1. Look out for generalisations. When it comes to sustainability discussions, the details very much matter. Any responses which dart outside of a subject matter need to be approached with scepticism. Even ChatGPT’s creator, Open-AI, warns that the technology “sometimes writes plausible-sounding but incorrect or nonsensical answers”.
    2. Beware of language. Words such as ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’ have come to be seen as red flags in sustainability communications. Get specific about language, and have the information to back up any descriptive words. For example, exactly how is your product or service ‘low carbon’ or ‘regenerative’?
    3. Fact check responses. Don’t take AI’s first answer as granted. Remember, ChatGPT is pulling its information from 2021 as its most recent point of reference. Take a human approach to the knowledge gathered, and ensure you can obtain reliable sources to back up any claims offered.

Using AI to understand more about sustainability

As we’ve acknowledged, sustainability as an area can be intimidating. But in the subsequent wake of ‘greenhushing’ following fears around greenwashing call-outs, there’s a huge opportunity to leverage the technology that is widely available and incredibly accessible to understand more about sustainability than ever before. 

For example, did you know that ChatGPT can also assist in identifying potential false or misleading claims in the company’s content? There’s actually a wide range of climate-focused AI tools available for businesses and consumers to analyse a company’s content for exaggerations or unverified claims about the environmental impact of their products or services. 

A very recent innovation launch has been ChatNetZero, which was unveiled during New York Climate Week. An app designed to shed light on ‘green initiatives’ by both investors and citizens, it aims to provide credible information on who is genuinely committed to meaningful climate action, seeking to clarify the complexities of “Net Zero” and evaluate the legitimacy of decarbonisation plans put forth by businesses, governments, and financial institutions. 


Can AI enable a sustainable future?

Interestingly, if you type in ‘AI greenwashing’, what you’ll mostly find is a range of pages highlighting ways in which AI is actually supporting organisations, investors, and consumers to spot greenwashing. 

In fact, using AI to the best of its ability can actually accelerate our abilities to drive increasingly conscious industries, and not just in terms of discussing it. From Climate Modeling and Prediction, Carbon Capture and Storage, Environmental Monitoring, and Natural Resource Management, the list of opportunities to transcend sustainability efforts and tangible action is pretty boundless, if we can get it right. 

The recent rise of AI has been a lot. It’s exciting, it’s a little scary, but it’s transformational. Let’s leverage it in the right direction, and drive the change needed.