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Caroline von Westerholt, Jacqueline Hegenbart. Credit: Marc Peter | 21Media

How to Avoid Accusations of Greenwashing While Effectively Marketing Your Green Efforts

Many retail real estate companies are currently hesitant to promote their sustainability efforts. The fear of being accused of greenwashing if the location or company is not 100% sustainable outweighs the potential upside of leasing to green-minded tenants. Yet, there is a clear and simple strategy when it comes to marketing one’s sustainability efforts without fearing to be accused of greenwashing.

By Caroline von Westerholt and Jacqueline Hegenbart, 21Media

Sustainable fashion start-ups are not the only ones offering ecologically produced products that rely on socially responsible a-z supply chains – major players, such as H&M and Mediamarkt/Saturn, are doing so as well. Adopting a holistic, sustainable, ecologically-focused approach is a must for retail brands if they want to gain a competitive edge, or even be considered by particularly younger target groups. For younger target groups, a focus on sustainability, especially in consumption, is by no means a short-lived trend, but has already become a part of the identity of the young.

As a large and also publicly present part of the supply chains of retailers or our tenants, the focus of brick-and-mortar retail is, therefore, shifting to a holistic, sustainable approach. More and more of our potential tenants are refusing to lease spaces that are not sustainable. Today, every tenant must fight to make retail locations a part of their green strategy. Transforming retail locations into sustainable spaces will be critical.

It is time for us to roll up our sleeves and start being truly sustainable. However, when I think about where to start and what actions to take, I am less enthusiastic. The sheer number of actions that can be taken, or that rather must be taken, to be holistic and absolutely sustainable is just too overwhelming and, quite frankly, I am convinced that they are almost unattainable in their entirety.

There is no doubt that the younger generations are more uncompromising when it comes to implementing sustainability – and sometimes, perhaps, better informed. That is why it is not only sensible, but also important to listen to young people – especially on this topic.

Sustainability – An Issue to Listen to and to Adapt to Younger Generations

Luckily, we have a very valuable and smart associate at 21Media, Jacqueline Hegenbart, who is not only a social media expert, and thence in contact with young target groups 24/7, but she also specialises in sustainable marketing/branding and green events. She specialised in green marketing during her studies and has worked for one of the first green event companies in Germany for seven years.

Asked her opinion on how to become holistically sustainable without fear of being accused of greenwashing, Jacqueline’s answer is surprisingly clear and simple: “Neither the tenants nor the consumers demand (yet) that a venue or a company to be absolutely sustainable and to leave no footprint on the planet. They do, however, demand that you do your best to reduce as much waste, CO2 emissions, and resource consumption as you can. The most important thing you can do to start being sustainable is to get started in the first place!”

The fear of being accused of greenwashing if you are not fully sustainable does not worry Jacqueline. In her opinion, it is important to be consistent, honest, and transparent through the process. You have to be able to back up all the actions you claim to take. She says that her generation is well aware that 100% sustainability is not and will not be achievable in many industries for a long time to come. However, that is not a problem at all, as long as the gaps are cleverly compensated for. Planting 100 trees to offset a ton of waste is just as good. In addition, Jacqueline adds, speaking as a marketing expert, compensation can further your upward ambitions – you just need to find the compensation method that supports your personal branding.

Compensation – Effective and Accepted by the Younger Generations

Her advice is to communicate openly and to document how hard you are trying to make up for your deficiencies. Such communication will be your best promotional tool anyway. Of course, your overall goal should be to become 100% sustainable, but it is just as important that tenants and consumers know about your honest efforts to achieve that goal.

Let Your Tenants and Customers Know about Your Sustainability Efforts – but Communicate Ecologically

That leads us to the next topic. How can you promote your sustainability efforts in a way that convinces both tenants and consumers of your fair-minded intentions? In addition to the transparency mentioned before, your communications efforts and campaigns themselves need to be as sustainable as possible.

All materials used must either be recycled or recyclable. Think about things like decorations, energy saving light bulbs, and digital advertising versus printed materials. Can all necessary resources be produced locally? In addition to rooftop-based solar power, think of creative ways to generate energy, such as involving consumers. For example, if you blend your smoothie using energy, you can solve two problems at once. Consumer involvement, energy conservation, and being creative and fun are all good ideas, just to name a few. That said, any actions you take need to be evaluated to ensure they are as resource efficient as possible. All employees involved, both your own and those of subcontractors must be checked in regard to social responsibility.

Documentation and Transparency are Key

In order to be able to take all of these factors into account, structured checklists can help, such as those offered by certification labels like Ökoprofit and Atmosfair. They enable us to quickly check sustainability-related matters, when planning a new event or preparing a marketing campaign. On the one hand, such checklists help us structure our documentation and give us an idea of the level of sustainability, or if a particular project is not fully sustainable yet, an idea of the amount we need to compensate elsewhere.

In addition to the need to reduce our environmental footprint as much as possible, sustainability has become an increasingly important necessity in all B2B and B2C marketing efforts, to attract tenants and customers. Not only will the location itself be assessed from a sustainability perspective, but all communications, campaigns, or events that promote the location will also be evaluated. Transparency and documentation are key requirements for creative and effective marketing activities, which engage both, consumers and tenants. Always remember: It is absolutely fine to talk about your efforts and successes – you just need to be honest and transparent about them. At 21 Media, we strive hard to be green, and we love it!

Caroline Westerholt: Caroline von Westerholt holds a degree in Real Estate Economics and is the Head of Strategy & Repositioning of Retail Properties at Twenty One Media GmbH (Germany). Prior to that, she spent nine years as Director of Development for Urban Districts at MAB Development GmbH; consequently, she spent five years in Asset & Portfolio Management for Commercial Real Estate at Provinzial Versicherung.

Jacqueline Hegenbart: Jacqueline Hegenbart has been part of the 21Media team since 2021. She specialized in Sustainable Marketing & Green Events during her studies, and she works for 21Media as a Social Media & Green Event expert. At 21Media, she launched the upcycle project with Berliner Stadtmission, for the Alexa in Berlin, among others.


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