Unilever research: Greenwashing fears thwart sustainability messaging among influencers

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Unilever is partnering with a range of sustainability experts to help support content creators on their sustainability messaging. GettyImages/Luis Alvarez
Unilever is partnering with a range of sustainability experts to help support content creators on their sustainability messaging. GettyImages/Luis Alvarez

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Research suggests influencers want to mention sustainability more in their content, but most are hesitant. Unilever wants to change this narrative.

Influencers and content creators are revolutionising the marketing landscape, with an influx of consumers buying products or services recommended via their social media accounts.

For FMCG major Unilever, share of spend in digital advertising is now at around 50%. But this varies meaningfully across markets and depends on a brand’s ‘job to be done’, according to Sukru Dincer, global head of digital, sustainable choices at Unilever.

“We are spending more in areas such as influencer marketing, digital commerce, retail media, streaming and gaming,” ​he told FoodNavigator.

According to new research from the Dove-to-Magnum owner, most (60%) content creators want to make a positive impact on the environment. Promoting environmentally friendly products and services is an obvious way to do that. But the vast majority (84%) are holding back from mentioning sustainability more in their content, the research found.

A 2019 survey conducted across France, Germany, Australia and the US, on behalf of Rakuten Marketing, revealed that among consumers who actively engage on social media platforms, 41% recently discovered new brands and products through influencers with 80% purchasing the product directly via the influencer’s provided link.

And times have changed even since then. The global influencer marketing market size has more than doubled since 2019 according to Statista, which estimates the market to be currently worth a record $21.1bn (€19.8bn).

Fear of greenwashing the primary barrier

The ‘first-of-its-kind’ study was conducted by market research company Ipsos who polled the views of 232 content creators across YouTube, TikTok and Instagram in the UK, US, Brazil and the Philippines. Content areas included food and diet, beauty and wellness, fashion, home improvements, travel, gaming, and sustainability.

Of the content creators surveyed, almost two thirds (63%) said they are creating more sustainability content this year compared to last year. Three quarters (76%) said they want to create even more in the future.

But a range of factors are holding them back, the research suggests. The greatest is the fear of greenwashing, which more than a third (38%) cited as a barrier.

Other barriers include finding it difficult to transition from the main focus of their content to sustainability; thoughts on what is or isn’t sustainable can change; and not feeling educated enough on the key sustainability issues. These three factors each received 21%.

For 18% of respondents, concerns about being ‘cancelled’ (rejected and boycotted) was cited as a problem.

Content creators’ greenwashing fears are not necessarily unfounded. Greenwashing, whereby false or misleading statements are made about the environmental benefits of a product or practice, is attracting the attention of policymakers.

In a move against greenwashing, the European Commission proposed common criteria​ to stamp out vague, misleading or unsubstantiated environmental claims earlier this year.

Consumers turn away from products linked to greenwashing

As it turns out, authorities are not the only ones wary of greenwashing. Fresh research from audit, tax and advisory service provider KPMG UK suggests over half (54%) of consumers say they would stop buying from a company if it was found to have been misleading in their sustainability claims.

Published today (18 September), the findings come as a result of surveying 2,000 UK adults on their thoughts around green and sustainable products and technologies (those with minimal negative impact on the environment or promote ecological balance).

Results revealed that greenwashing is widely recognised by consumers, with 45% stating they had heard of the term. Eighteen percent said they are already ‘voting with their feet’ and changing their mind about a company due to misleading green claims.

Over half (54%) said they would stop buying products and services from companies found to have been greenwashed, while 38% would stop investing in them.

Of the sectors perceived most likely to engage in greenwashing, the energy sector (58%) scored highest, followed by the fashion industry (57%). Transport and automotive (51%) and grocery, food and agriculture (47%) were also considered at risk of greenwashing by a considerable number of consumers.

At the same time, consumers clearly care about the sustainability of products, with two thirds (67%) of consumers trying to seek out green or sustainable options for some of the products and services they buy.

Richard Andrews, head of ESG at KPMG UK, stressed that any sign of greenwashing will diminish consumer trust, making it imperative that companies continue to ensure all claims can be evidenced and that as new regulations are introduced, they are understood and adhered to.

“The risks of overselling being ‘greener than green’ are too high.”

Framework in development to ensure alignment with ‘very latest climate science’

KPMG’s research also revealed that consumer awareness of sustainability labelling was ‘very low’. Just 9% of respondents knew of the carbon reduction label and only 10% recognised B Corp.  

Awareness appears to be low amongst influencers, too. According to Unilever's findings, 58% of respondents said they feel confused about sustainability or environmental labels.

The study found that nine in ten (91%) would find advice helpful. Specifically, they would like access to content or resources on sustainability living; direct support to ask questions on sustainability briefs; support dealing with audience comments; and access to training about making trustworthy statements about the environment.

This is something Unilever believes it can help provide. The FMCG company is partnering with a range of sustainability experts to form a coalition to help support content creators on their sustainability messaging.

Other members of the coalition include carbon-reduction focused Count Us In, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), conservation and development organisation Rare, advertising transparency-focused Futerra Solutions Union, and a community of social media content creators under a newly formed Creator Council.

“We know that sustainability content on social media has the potential to drive more sustainable behaviours, with over three quarters of consumers claiming influencers have the biggest impact on their green choices today,” ​commented Rebecca Marmot, Unilever’s chief sustainability officer. “But it needs to be informative and meaningful content.”

The coalition will work to co-create an industry-wide ‘digital solution’ to accelerate accurate and effective sustainability content. The solution will be informed by science and behaviour change theory to encourage more sustainable behaviours.

“Partners are currently developing a framework and guidelines to ensure the solutions are in line with the very latest climate science,” ​noted Unilever.

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